Before I came to The Strong, my exposure to pinball had been limited to the Barbie Shakin’ Pinball handheld video game that I received for Christmas 1995. I have definitely come a long way in my pinball knowledge since then, from learning the proper terms for components I never knew existed (pop bumpers are my favorite) to discovering the game’s tumultuous and sometimes scandalous past (mob connections, anyone?). Once I saw the machines up close, I became fascinated with the several different types of artwork that appear on every pinball machine. The cabinet artwork can be painted, stenciled, and in more modern times, applied as decals or screen-printed directly onto the sides and front of the machine. It often features eye-catching motifs and bright colors. Once the side art grabs your eye and draws you closer, you notice the detail and intricate game design of the playfield. But my favorite part of a pinball machine is the backglass. This area often features the most complex artwork, displaying characters, multiple scenes, or other images that tell the story of the game. What interests me most about pinball backglasses, however, is not the imagery itself. I am fascinated by how the technique used to decorate the backglass connects to other forms of artwork throughout history, including some examples in the collection here at The Strong.
Traditionally, a pinball backglass is created by screen-printing an image face-down to the back of a piece of glass so that the scene can be viewed from the front. The colored image is then typically followed with additional layers of white or black in order to control the diffusion of light. These layers—especially the black—are sometimes applied selectively to increase contrast in dynamic areas, such as where lights flash behind numbers as points are scored during game play.