How We Do It

IMG_3455Recently while looking through some stats for my site I noticed that there was a search that was made that led a reader to the blog that asked the question how a glass artist in the New River Valley (that must be me….there is only one glass studio currently in the NRV) how it was that colors and patterns in glass are so closely controlled.

When you can see glass being blown, many questions are answered about how what we achieve with molten glass is achieved.  For a material that you cannot touch due to how hot it is, it can be hard to wrap your head around the idea of very controlled patterns in glass.

The truth is, there are many ways that glass is controlled and to be honest, some of it strikes me as a miracle given that you begin with a gob of glass (and yes “gob” is the technical term for glass just exiting the furnace).  Some methods for controlling glass in this way involve taking strands or canes of colored glass, pulling them out into straw-like lengths and then later cutting them into lengths that are all the same, then spacing them apart in regular distances and rolling the molten glass over them.  This is what we call “cane work.”  This includes lots of variations that lead to long regularly shaped ribbons of color running through the glass.  The Italian cane method called latticino is the result of two layers of the same colored cane (typically white) laid on at odd angles to one another so that they effectively create a lattice.  It creates a pattern of diamonds across the surface and looks highly controlled.  How?  Its controlled and looks controlled because it is.  The raw or clear gob of glass is shaped into a cylinder, is measured by a special device called a pi-divider to make sure that the diameter of the glass is sufficient for the number of canes and the distances that the cane are placed so that once the glass is rolled across them, there is no gaps in the pattern.  This takes measurement and precision.  This is done while working the glass on the end of the blow pipe.

Imagine laying down patterns of color on an artists palette so that the paint looks like a painting, just not on a canvas.  Now imagine that instead of paint, you have glass powders making up the picture.  Now imagine bringing a bit of hot glass and laying it down on this palette of colors and fusing those fine powders to the surface of the glass.  In essence it is like what kids used to do with Silly Putty and the Sunday cartoons; they transfer dye or glass colors onto the Silly Putty or in our case, the glass.  That is another way that we do this.  There are a number of other methods harder to explain but are part of how such controlled patterns are made.

In my work I have developed a way of working over the decades that involves an often-used method of putting glass into a mold that creates a corrugated surface in the glass.  Imagine glass coming out of the mold and looking just like a star fruit.  Do you know this yellow fruit that doesn’t have much flavor but sure looks great in a fruit salad? Well, imagine glass rolling in powdered colored glass.  Now imagine how those powders would tend to congregate into the crevices of the glass.  Then imagine how, using heat, those crevices melt into one another, effectively creating concentrated bands of color where the layers touch.  Now imagine taking that and moving to the next level where these bands are twisted and folded even more until intricate patterns are made.  This is not too much different from latticcino effects except they use powders instead of cane.  This is where all similarities end.  This is also where the technique in my studio gets pushed to the next level.  I don’t talk about this level very much simply because I don’t know anyone who has mastered this method in the way I have and I like very much for my work to be unique.  I once was asked by a beginning glassblower how I achieved the effects that I did in some of my pieces where I was actually able to vary the pattern in the same way that you might be able to take, say, a plaid pattern in cloth and then stretch it in certain areas in order to change the frequency of the pattern.  This was something that I had worked on for years and I realized that in explaining it to this person, I was effectively letting the cat out of the bag.  When it comes to discovery of this sort, huge sums of time and sweat are involved.  I realized the best and simplest way to explain to him what I did was to say it was done with glass powders, to which he said he already KNEW that part.  I then moved to the more obvious thing he was asking with was the patterning.  I explained that it was done by controlling the glass.  His answer was that he already KNEW that also…..he wanted to know EXACTLY how I had achieved this effect that had him scratching his head.  In that moment I realized I was like the magician who was asked by an audience member how they did a certain trick.  Some things are hard to explain and some are easy to explain.  Some things that are easy to explain are also hard-won.  How I do my type of patterning is hard-won and explaining how it is done does not tell the full tale at all since it is in truth fairly intricate and involves a lot of nuanced control that is not always explainable, only illustrated in the moment as it is done.

But it is about control.  It is also about letting the glass be what it is.  When you do this, you get effects in the glass that bring rise to effects that give the material a fluid look.  Much of what I do is just letting the glass BE what it is.  This is not some touchy-feely thing, but a fundamental understanding of the material and its expressive potential.  When you can do this you can move beyond the rigidly controlled looks that some glass has and move into more sensual forms that are organic and more interesting (to me).  Often, too, the glass offers up some amazing and tantalizing opportunities by simply allowing it to be what it is.  This is where control and lack of control meet.  Finding the balance is where the crest of the creative lies (for me).  The truth is, for the methods that I use in my Nautilus Series, anyone can do them as a beginner and get some kind of a result.  That is Artglass101.  What I have done is to take this to Artglass 605 which means years of work and practice and observation.  It was my teacher who said there wasn’t much you could do with powders and large pieces.  I took it upon myself to see if this was true.  I certainly didn’t find this out with any teacher.  I found it out on my own and what I found was that glass powders, when properly understood, offered up incredible potential, even for very large pieces. You just have to understand it and not assume that something is the way it is just because you think it is so.  For something that can create a vague veil of color smeared across the surface of glass on the first try, it is hard for some to understand how it can be taken to the place where it exists in my work.  I like such places because they represent an oasis of creative room where others aren’t trying to copy.  I have seen how my more difficult techniques have been appropriated by a few glass artists and I have been able to see the things that frustrated me initially frustrating them as well.  In one case, the artist stopped making the pieces because he could not get past a certain technical hurdle.  This hurdle, which I had mastered only came by repetition and learning from the glass all that I needed to know.  When you are only interested in trying to pick up a look from another artist to try and fold into your own work, this most often means that you aren’t really very engaged in doing the work necessary to take things to the next level.

There are other methods for getting patterns in the glass which often involve chunks of colored glass fused to the surface of glass.  One is the use of a type of cane called murrine (pronounced marine-ee).  This is where a cane is cut so that it is viewed on end instead of on its side.  You can create pictures with this type of cane.  In fact, some glass artists have pushed this to the extreme by making “portrait” murrine which has imagery as delicate as a painting which is the result of many canes being bundled together, pulled out into a small cane and then chopped up and laid out to be rolled up onto the outside of a cylinder of glass and then blown out in a vase or bowl.

For those interested in understanding how this is all done, either visit your local hot glass studio and ask some questions or watch the glass being made or go to youtube and watch a “cane rollup” technique by simply putting those terms into the search window to check it out for yourself.  In the end, all of this is in learning how to do what is difficult look easy.  It isn’t always as easy as it looks, not by a long shot, which is why it often takes years to begin to master glass as an expressive medium.  It can also lead you to appreciating the craft and skill necessary to make what I think of as sheer miracles in a medium that is unlike any other.  I don’t normally toot my horn about all of this probably because I am just not very good at it, but what I am probably good at is making all of this seem deceptively easy.  Once you understand how its not easy at all, you are on the first part of a journey towards appreciating hot glass as a frustrating difficult but incredibly rewarding material!

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