Isabelle Scheltjens, or the mastery of light and colour through glass

Isabelle Scheltjens has been drawn to the arts ever since she was a child. Her academic career in art began at SISA, the Institute of Decorative Arts and Crafts in Antwerp, where she immersed herself in various artistic disciplines. But it was the complex glass designs of her husband, Dirk Nefs, that turned her towards the medium of glass.

Over the years, Isabelle has devoted herself to the meticulous practice of assembling numerous pieces of coloured glass, a painstaking process that is just as essential for refining her technique and deepening her understanding of colour theory. She eventually developed a distinctive method of fusing glass, which involves melting together pieces of glass of different colours, sizes and textures at temperatures approaching 800°C.

Stylistically, Isabelle's works are reminiscent of pointillism; up close, they appear as abstract assemblages of coloured glass dots, but at a distance, they merge into dramatic, precise portraits. This technique allows her to create striking optical effects, capturing the dynamic interplay of light and colour. So, depending on the viewer's perspective, her works sometimes appear as black-and-white images, and other times as vivid portraits.

Isabelle Scheltjens' creative process for her glass portraits

Isabelle Scheltjens begins the creation of each portrait with a design phase, based on a detailed image or sketch that she often makes herself. She may also organise a photo shoot in her studio to capture the ideal pose, look and expression of her models. The process of constructing the glass portrait is then carried out block by block, a method that requires great meticulousness. Scheltjens usually works on five to six portraits simultaneously, which allows her to put a work aside temporarily if she is unable to achieve the desired result.

Naturally, creating these works is a long and demanding process. Scheltjens, who describes herself as a very patient person, assembles each block from two or three layers of hand-cut glass. Each piece is meticulously placed before the whole is fired at around 800 degrees. When the blocks fuse, she begins the delicate adjustment stage, often observing her work from a stepladder to better assess and adjust the work.

When asked about the uniqueness of her technique, Scheltjens explains that while glass fusing is an age-old method, its specific application in the creation of portraits is unique. She developed and refined this approach after much research and experimentation, as glass fusion involves combining types of glass with different coefficients of expansion, a complex synthesis of artistic and technical aspects that was initially a process of trial and error.

A unique artistic vision

Although Isabelle Scheltjens is best known for her portraits of women, you may be surprised to learn that this focus is not intentional: "It just happened. I've also done portraits of men, but they're usually big icons," she explains. What's more, the artist often develops her own ideas while accepting commissions that lead her to create personalised portraits. "I always enjoy creating a personalised portrait - seeing the recipient happy with the result gives me enormous satisfaction. But of course, as an artist, I'm freer when I'm allowed to do what I want. And freedom is a joy, isn't it?" she laughs.

Glass fusing, which combines creativity and technical skill, is essential to Scheltjens' method. She considers herself a modern pointillist: "Deceiving the human eye, so to speak, has always intrigued me. A pointillist uses dots of paint next to each other to create a mixture of colours; I use different colours of glass on top of each other to create my mixture of colours. From a distance, our eyes mix these colours almost as a machine would".

When it comes to personalised portraits, Scheltjens has worked for famous clients while respecting their privacy. She cites the example of Kevin De Bruyne, who commissioned a portrait for his wife Michèle to mark their wedding anniversary. Other celebrities, such as Valérie and even the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, have also called on her services, the latter having acquired several of her works in Paris.