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 Volume 14, Issue 95  |  November 29, 2022


Glass artist John Barber demonstrates his pyrographic technique at the annual LOCA brunch on October 2

By MARRIE STONE

Glassblowing is a physically demanding art form. Sawdust Festival exhibitor John Barber estimates he produces roughly 12 tons of glass each year and burns 4,000 calories a day doing it. It’s not a practice anyone can sustain into old age. So, after a 50-year career as a successful glass artist, Barber began searching for something new. 

The pandemic gave him time and space to explore ways he could apply his artistic skills to a new medium. It took several months of trial, error and experimentation, but Barber perfected a pyrographic technique that combines glass and specially formulated watercolor paints to create unique (and extremely long-lasting) two-dimensional designs. 

“As far as I know, no one is doing this,” Barber said. “To introduce something brand new into my career at this stage of life is really cool. I’m smiling ear to ear. It’s really been wonderful.” 

Barber will present this technique at LOCA’s annual meeting and brunch event held at the Healy House and entertainment deck on the Sawdust Festival grounds on Sunday, Oct. 2, at 11 a.m. In addition to describing the process, Barber will show the audience his shop tools, materials, drawing samples and finished fine art. Attendees will also enjoy a buffet-style Champagne brunch and learn about LOCA’s upcoming fall and winter programming. 

glass artist 1

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Courtesy of LOCA

Glass artist and 45-year Sawdust Festival exhibitor John Barber showcases one of his pyrographic watercolor paintings

The pyrographic technique

Motivated by the growing concern about “beating up his body by standing in front of a belching furnace all day,” Barber began thinking about how he could transform a three-dimensional heavy object into a two-dimensional graphic design. In less than a year, he had the answer.

“I put a heavy sheet of watercolor paper on a piece of plywood in front of my furnace. I gather glass from the furnace and drip it over the page, burning black lines into the paper. I can create an image this way. Hence the term ‘pyrographic.’ This is done with extreme heat. Then I paint it with watercolor,” Barber said.

Barber isn’t a traditional watercolorist, and his paints aren’t traditional watercolors. “I’ve found this niche that I fit into as a glassblower/painter,” he said. “I bring a new vision to the work.”

Forty years ago, Barber was researching ancient Chinese and Japanese watercolor techniques. What he read back then, and remembered today, changed everything. “There was a small paragraph that mentioned they often mixed powdered colored glass with red and purple pigments, because those colors were the first to fade,” said Barber. “I filed that in the back of my brain. When I sat down to do these watercolors, I remembered this and realized I had these glass powders. I went on the Internet and figured out how to mix my own watercolor. It’s very simple. It’s just gum arabic, water and glycerin. I mix it with the pigment to create a water-based watercolor. The colors are just incredible. They’re vivid and bold, and they’ll never fade.”

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Courtesy of LOCA

Barber with a plywood burn panel, which holds the watercolor paper during the burn phase

A new twist on an ancient art

Although Barber’s approach is uniquely his own, pyrographics has a long and storied history. A New Zealand native visited Barber’s booth at the Sawdust recently and remarked on his paintings. She told Barber about the ancient Aborigines in Australia who used a similar technique on tree bark. “They peeled the bark off trees and burned images into the bark,” Barber said. “Pyrographic artwork was one of their earliest artforms. I love hearing things like that. It’s one of the reasons I love blowing glass. It has this long history.”

Because Barber uses glass powder pigments in his watercolors, the images will last indefinitely with the same vibrancy as the day they were made. That’s not true of most watercolors, which notoriously fade in the sun. “These glass pieces made 3,000 years ago are just as beautiful today as the day they were made,” Barber said.

While the technique may be ancient, Barber’s application of it to watercolor is wholly original. “I’ve never heard of watercolor painters using glass pigments,” he said. “With this approach, the painting will never be affected by sunlight. It will have the longevity of blown glass. That is unique.”

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Longevity is a big deal to Barber. Not only does it cement his artistic legacy but knowing work will last a few thousand years into the future gives it a kind of gravitas. To get a sense of the gravity of Barber’s work, visit one of his masterpieces at the Montage Laguna Beach. Barber is the artist behind the 27-foot pate-de-verre glass mural, visible from Pacific Coast Highway. Before Eternal Sunset was installed in 2003, Barber received some pushback from the hotel about the potential fragility of the work. “I told them, ‘Are you kidding me? In 5,000 years, they’ll be giving snorkel tours of this piece.’ That kind of longevity has great value to an artist.”

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Courtesy of LOCA

Barber shows some of his glass jars

An art all his own

While Barber’s specialty isn’t as a watercolorist, his years in the field have taught him balance, design, color and form. “I’m not a traditional watercolorist,” he said. “That’s pretty evident. But I don’t hear a lot of critique from watercolorists because I’m doing something totally different. I don’t want to be like other artists. I just want to create something unique to me. I think that’s happened.”

Barber spent the first three years of his career back in the early 1970s studying in Bavaria, Germany. “Bavarians have a symbol for glassblowers given to them by the German government,” he said. “It’s an infinity sign with the cross upside down. They say it’s an eternal cross to bear in the making of glass. And it is.”

But now, Barber said, he’s found a new medium to bring his 50 years of glass blowing experience where he can continue to work until the day he dies. “It’s exciting for me to be able to talk about this,” he said. “Most artists don’t know what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. I’m not afraid to show them how it’s done because it would take them 50 years to become as good as I am. But it’s something new for artists to consider.” 

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Courtesy of LOCA

A deckle-edged pyrographic watercolor painting by John Barber

LOCA Arts Education is a nonprofit organization and all proceeds will support LOCA programs. Admission to the brunch and art demonstration is free to new and renewing members, $30 for guests. Advance registration is required. Visit the calendar at www.LOCAarts.org, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The Sawdust Festival is at 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

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