'There's no night-school for neon-making', as Richard William Wheater, our instructor for the day and neon artiste, pointed out. It is true. Neon signs are everywhere, or at least they used to be, but who teaches this trade? From signs announcing a cinema, your favourite brand of beer, a barber, your usual chippy and even the typical flickering semi-naked lady pointing to a dodgy door, all a common part of our urban environment. So when we found out neon lights are man-made from beginning to end, we couldn't help but think 'How on earth can a person mould glass tubes, play around with fire, gases and electrons to create mesmerising pieces seemingly so simple?'.
None of us could believe the seven hours of this workshop had gone so quickly.
That's why newlyweds, teachers, experienced artists and non-artist were led by our curiosity to learn this mysterious art which has been around for at least 50 years. Wheater created Mobile Neon Workshops to travel around the globe and teach anyone how to make neon. As a result, I must say, we wish we could do this forever.
The name 'Neon lights' was coined from the playful red gas of the same name discovered by Scottish chemist William Ramsay (together with other noble gases that are used to create different colours in this lights). And what a better place to learn this mix of glass artistry, chemicals and electrics, than Scotland?
Our day began with a fascinating introduction conducted by Richard himself. As he introduced us to the creation of neon, he melted some glass at high temperatures to demonstrate how it becomes almost like paste. He taught us how colours can be achieved combining different gases and coloured glass, while the glass tube flexed into the shape of an 'R' (allegedly the hardest letter to make) in his hands. Finally, he explained the long-lasting effect of this lights, which can live longer than us with the right care; then he bombarded the 'R' with electrons until we could see the argon gas dance inside the newly made creation.
When it was our turn to try, there was a bit of apprehension. The process seemed too difficult for a non-neon artist to do. But we were soon proven wrong. We were given a piece of paper and a glass tube for inspiration. Some went for abstract designs, others used common symbols; the challenge was to make it simple for us to practice bending glass. By the time Richard's assistant, Nick, carefully directed us into bending and twisting our glass tubes free-style, all fears had evaporated, and our creativity shone like one of Richard's neon masterpieces.
'Only five minutes more' Richard announced as I bended the last bits of my soon-to-be neon arrow. None of us could believe the seven hours of this workshop had gone so quickly. As the day came to an end, we all admired our dazzling creations shining in a table for display, soon to be taken home with us.