The Cliché-verre
(French for “picture-glass”)

Like a conventional photograph, a cliché-verre is a print produced by the action of light upon a light-sensitive material (such as photographic paper.) But, unlike a photograph created by passing light through a camera-made film negative, the cliché-verre is made by passing light through a (negative) drawing or painting constructed by an artist's hand.

By drawing or painting on a transparent material such as glass (or matte acetate in my case) an artist can construct an image that appears (relative to the darks and lights) to be the opposite of the final objective. A print created by passing light through such a hand-made negative is a cliché-verre. It is a photograph created without the use of a camera.

Although no examples have survived, the first cliché-verre was said to have been made by William Havell in England about 1835, shortly after the invention of photography. The process was especially popular among members of the Barbizon School in France in the 1850's. The most prolific 19th Century artist to use the process was Jean Baptise Corot, who produced at least sixty-six negative paintings on glass plates. Usually the artist painted with ink or scratched through dried ink that had been rolled onto small sheets of glass. Other artists to use the process included: Daubigny, Delacroix, Millet, and Rousseau in the 19th Century and Klee, Ernst, Man Ray, Picasso and several other artists in the 20th Century.

My cliché-verre prints are the result of first making a pencil and/or ink negative drawing on a sheet of matte acetate. After the drawing was completed it was taken to a photographic darkroom, placed in contact with photographic paper and exposed to light and archivally developed. As a contact print, the final image remains the same size as the initial drawing, only now it is a positive image.

Although, my cliché-verre prints are available as black and white images, many are further enhanced by hand-applied color. Oil paints, color pencils, inks, dyes and watercolors have each been used in the past for the coloring process. At present, I use acrylic inks and a very small brush to paint the surface of the black and white print. Most of my negative drawings were made in 1984 through 1988. The cliché-verre prints were made between 1985 and 1995. Many of the prints are no longer available. Occasionally, I still find time to add color to a remaining print.

Made in limited editions as small as only two, but never larger than twenty-five, each of my cliché-verre prints are signed and numbered. Because of the unique handwork, no two colored images are identical. All the work is archivally processed for extended permanence and protection and, if desired, is available with matting and framing.

Hello Fred and regards from the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia.
I am a high school photo teacher who is somewhat familiar with the 19th Century technique of cliche verre. Presently, and among other projects, I have my students experiment with camera obscura drawings, as well as photograms. I am curious about the possibility of combining the two - which, you would probably agree, seems logical - in such a way as to involve cliche verre. That said, and having found your website and the impressive work shown on it, I cannot help but notice how photographic your images are. What can you tell me about the cliche verre technique you employ in making your images?
Thanks in advance,
an art teacher from British Columbia, Canada

Glad you asked. But where to start?

First you should get a copy of a book. The bible of cliché-verre history and diversities from its beginnings through 1980.

Published in 1980 by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Cliché-verre: Hand-Drawn, Light-Printed
by Elizabeth Glassman and Marilyn F. Symmes

I know you and your students would find the book very interesting. I got my copy, in 1984, from the Museum shops of the Detroit Institute of Arts, for $20. You might find a copy on the net or perhaps in your school library. It is worth the effort.

About my work. I started many years ago by painting with ink on a large sheet of glass... A scene I could see through the glass... on an easel outdoors. making everything negative as I worked with different bowls of water, attempting to dilute the ink just right for the value (the opposite value) needed. (hard part) (Not a very user friendly way to make an image. But I made one or two that way).

Then I took the "glass-negative-painting" into my "photographic dark room" and placed it on top of a sheet of Kodak paper, turned on a light, processed the print and had a "positive" image (a cliché-verre). My first attempts were high contrast images that carried much of the fluidity of the brush and water and density of ink. But, I wanted more control over the values, so I could have more detail and more appearance of "reality"... So I changed my materials. I replaced glass with matte-acetate and the ink and brush with pencil (sometimes augmented with ink). I taught myself to draw my negatives. Small (8"x10") at first, then larger, and eventually the largest—fifty-three inches wide.

Sonoma Mountain

My image bias is obviously for photographic "reality" and I use various tools and equipment to accomplish my goals. I'm now more into digital than darkroom.

Early on, I found I could "trace" an image directly from the news paper or photograph, in the negative, in pencil— starting at the top left corner and slowly "cancelling" the image under the acetate. (pixel by pixel or grain by grain) Applying graphite or ink to the lightest areas, while doing nothing to the darker areas of the image. The pencil on the matte-acetate became a very workable method of making negatives (as opposed to my first attempts with ink and water on glass).

Actually, a cliché-verre can be made with bubble-wrap and lipstick (rubbings make great negatives). That's what makes it so much fun.

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