What I know about making window displays – Lucy Reeves Khan

Some people have asked me for ‘tips’ for making a display, to which I reply that I’m not sure I know much. My feeling is that the galleries of other people’s work that ping around online are the best resource, but I can share what I have learnt through my own personal making process. If you have your own ‘top tips’ for displays please share them to me at comms@windowwanderland.com.

I recommend that first, you think about what you want to say, then say it as simply as you can. Limit the work, unless you want to spend that time creating, as it may put you off doing it again. There is no judgement in a Window Wanderland. Remember, most people will pass by pretty quickly on their way to the next surprise, but ANYTHING you do will be noticed.

Look from outside at night
This is by far the most important element, as every display is ‘site-specific’, where your window is, and what it is surrounded by is crucial. Go outside and look at your window, think about what you want to see in it, you will get ideas from being outside. Lighting is one of the critical parts of the displays, so have a look at the light from your window, and around the outside of the house.

Decide what to do
A 2D display, a ‘set’ inside the room or lights in the garden? Do you want to make a display on the window or open the curtains and create something inside the room? Can you make a communal display with a neighbours window as well? Is there a tree you could hang stuff on? If you make something in the room, will people be able to get in to see it? These are questions you can answer by looking outside, imagining you are looking in.

Simple designs?
I would say that the best displays I have done have been the simplest. The first year was the giraffe as my neighbours were away and said I could have their house, they happen to have canvas blinds on all of the windows, perfect!

I borrowed one of those expensive cutter machines which allow you to scan in a small image and cuts it to size. That was tech porn for me, it was so exciting until 4 hrs later, an hour before the event, I had been on the phone to their customer services line in America twice as the cutter machine wasn’t talking to my computer, and I was losing the will. So it was a very shouty, monstrous me, ordering my family about, including my elderly mother, with some scissors on the kitchen table and 30 mins later up the giraffe went. The technology was not necessary for this.

For my house I used a tree, fairy lights and lots of kids shoes which I had covered with red glitter, They hung outside like advertising a glamorous drug dealer, though no one asked for any, so that reference was just in my head.

Sometimes I overstretch myself, having been uncreative for many years. I suppose I wanted to ‘express myself’. I thought that people might hang around on a freezing night and look in for a while. In this regard Window Wanderland is best kept simple as my failures show.

One year the theme was ‘No place like home’ as I had been in my house for fifteen years, seen my gorgeous kids grow up and been very frustrated all in one. I made the sign using the annoying cutter machine, but getting the words illuminated was really hard. Behind those words are loads of fairy lights hanging on for dear life with sellotape that kept falling off in the heat of the radiator.

I created a 60-second slide show of all the images taken in that room, with the kids sitting in the same places, on the same sofa, goggling at the same TV ten years apart. I screened it on a sheet inside, but 60 seconds was far too long. No one hung around to ‘get it’, who can blame them in the freezing rain?

Materials to use, discover tracing paper!
If you want someone to focus on a silhouette, the best medium to use as your ‘background’ is tracing paper or wet strength tissue paper. This is for two reasons, one it means you can create the display anywhere that is comfortable, like on a table, or a window, then hang it once finished. Two, it makes sure the background is not distracting. Below you can see the difference: your eye is drawn to what is inside the room until you use tracing paper or tissue paper. Make sure it is not see-through, like cellophane, as although it is coloured you will still see through it. This also allows for you being in your room and not being seen.

You can use greaseproof paper/paper tablecloths as well just as a ‘background cover’ with tissue paper on top. Making your images on a background allows you to keep layering tissue paper onto them, it’s a fantastic medium.

Create your displays as if you were facing them from the street, then once done just flip them over!

Wet glue is a disaster, with tissue paper use dry glue-like Pritt stick straight onto tracing paper. Sellotape is fantastic for sticking and after three days comes off without marking, blue tack may fall off, and you can see the shadow! If the sellotape leaves a mark, use WD40 or lighter fluid which gets anything off!

Paper or tissue?

Generally, black paper works best but can look a bit severe during the day; you can use any colour, even white, so long as it is thick enough to form a silhouette. Sugar paper is good as it’s thick enough so you can use colours for daytime, thin enough to cut well and it will go dark at night. My windows are above the radiator, so condensation wasn’t a problem, but you might want to consider that.

Tissue paper is fabulous for ‘pop art’ style block colour, and if layered up can make interesting images. It is fragile, which is why it is worth using the tracing paper as a canvas. If you want a very specific image with ‘black lines’ between the colours, you can use black paper or large chunky ‘paint pens’. These are expensive, but if you have a lot of lines to do it might be easier than cutting out black paper. I know that I have been far too hasty, thinking intricate designs would be easy.

Pens or paint?

You can use ‘sharpie’ pens on tracing paper, but they can become less vibrant. I recommend at least 90 gsm tracing paper if you are going to draw with marker pens, less weight may bleed through. Now there are ‘paint sticks’ that you can use, they make it possible to have lovely colour coming through.

If you want to do bright images, then you can buy lightweight white paper from Art shops which is what the sharpies were on for my ‘skeleton’, in honour of my father’s peaceful exit from this stage. It took a long time, but it was meditative!

You can use paint on windows, but generally, the colour will not be the one you expect without specialist paints. The ‘local fish’ above were painted on special acetate, it looks great! Less specialised paints will not be so vibrant, but they can still look wonderful if you are going for a monochrome style. Art materials move on, so always check if there is anything new around.

Testing and light
By far the best way is to see your display against the light. Sharpie pens will lose their intensity; tissue paper will change when it’s overlapped, and that wonderful gift wrap you found might be too dense as a background. Put it against the window and test it at night to be sure, you will be amazed at how much it will change when you put a light behind it. Although it is dark outside, so you do not need masses of light, it is worth testing. You may have to move a light behind it; I almost blew the house up balancing lights on tables!

If you want to make something that needs working out, just draw it to scale first using the grid method, its easy, wiki describes it best here. You can then measure your window and draw it at a scale of 1:10 putting in a grid and copy the artwork across.

Taking a good photo
Do not use a flash when taking photos of your creations as it distorts the colours and does not render the lovely night-quality of your display. Square the window and get the frame in as well. If you can get hold of a good camera, the higher the resolution, the better, send your images to comms@windowwanderland.com so we can share them!