Untitled Document

CHIHULY: WORKS ON PAPER

Patricia Failing
CHIHULY: WORKS ON PAPER

Dale Chihuly started making drawings about ten years ago when he began to execute his glass compositions in collaboration with a technical team. At first he drew to show the gaffer what to make. Since he was no longer blowing the glass himself, however, a new opportunity for creative expression opened up for him. "I usually draw while they are blowing," he explains. "What I created are hybrids of differing degrees. Some of them are more like working drawings, and I still use them for the gaffer, but some are not working drawings at all. I often get carried away and start making drawings that have little relationship to what the team is doing."

The earliest drawings in this exhibition are from 1982, when Chihuly was creating his Macchia and Seaform series in glass; the latest are 1991 compositions executed at a glassblowing session in Ebeltoft, Denmark. In formal terms, the drawings range from spidery calligraphy on a white page reminiscent of early abstract expressionist automatic drawings, to dense painterly forms outlined with metallic pigments. The more painterly compositions begin in 1988 with early drawings for the Venetian series (named after a glass series begun in Venice) and continue through the Ebeltoft group in 1991. Although they differ significantly in medium and in the relative weight of the calligraphic mark, most of the drawings have essentially the same composition: a large rounded shape or group of shapes centered on a flat ground. In a few cases the figures are placed to the right of center and have projections or tails that loop to the left. Most of the images are based on a columnar bottle or ginger-jar form, which is elaborated with rhythmic marks suggesting palm fronds, flower petals, tree branches, or leaf patterns. In the more recent work, Chihuly often complicates the figure-ground relationships by brushing or sponging color onto the backgrounds and by dripping or splattering small drops of paint around the perimeters of the central shapes. Tiny glass pebbles and dry metallic pigment have sometimes been added to suggest the iridescent shimmer of colored glass.

"Most of the drawings are quite spontaneous," Chihuly says. "I don't do much with preconceived ideas. I'll usually start a drawing with something I've done before, something I've thought about and know I can do, and then I'll just let it go from there. In the course of an eight-hour day of blowing glass, I might do 15 or 20 drawings, although that would be about the maximum. It's not safe to generalize though. My style of working and what I make rarely stay the same for very long."

Two groups of drawings in the exhibition were created under singular circumstances. The 1991 Seoul Venetian drawings, which are exceptionally large (65 by 52 inches), were commissioned for a drawings show in Korea which included the work of well-known painters such as Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell. Each artist was given ten sheets of handmade paper, all the same size. Chihuly began with a charcoal drawing but concluded that the scale of the paper demanded a heftier drawing too. He decided to draw with brushes, stretching the paper out on the floor. The results were unusual for Chihuly, not only in scale but in the close chromatic alignment of the figure and the ground. The charcoal Seoul drawing is a more typical composition, yet this is one of the few drawings in the show to capture the extravagant animation of the long-stemmed plant forms that spin out from the center in Chihuly's recent glass work. Although the majority of these drawings are lively and dynamic, in many cases the suggestion of élan vitale so evident in the glass seems to have been inhibited by the edges of the paper, or by the artist's habit of centering the figure in the middle of the ground.

The other atypical group is the black-and-white Japan drawings, which were made at a glassblowing demonstration in Tokyo in 1990. "I didn't have much room there and people were all around me," Chihuly recalls. "I couldn't be too sloppy and I didn't want to get paint all over everyone. So I just worked with charcoal. Location doesn't usually affect me very much, but maybe I made those forms in Japan because they seemed to have an oriental simplicity. They were not part of the usual working situation; in fact, they were drawings of pieces I'd done before. The paper they bought for me was very rough and it really took the charcoal-even the powder of the charcoal. I was just playing around with the materials."

With the exception of the Japan series, the more recent drawings in the show are the most colorful. Several technical factors contributed to this trend. Last year Chihuly began using a new form of water-soluble pressed charcoal available in rectangular block about two-and-one-half inches wide. He discovered that if the ground of a drawing is wet when the charcoal is applied, the marks become exceptionally dense and black. He used a sponge to wet the paper and soon began dipping the sponge in colored water. Some of the Ebeltoft drawings, which are among the most exuberant compositions in the show, illustrate this technique. Early in 1991 Chihuly also began using fluid acrylic paints, often squeezing the colors directly from the bottle and sometimes applying the pigment with his fingers. "I'm now working with more colors in the glass as well as in the drawings," he points out. "Although I've been working with a lot of color in the drawings for less than a year, I feel that I can work with almost any color combination. The drawings have given me a new freedom-if I can do it on paper, I can do it with the glass."

Most of all, Chihuly concludes, "the drawings have to do with releasing energy. Somebody once said that people become artist because they have a certain kind of excess energy to release, and that rang true to me. It's not the kind of energy you can work off in the weight room. It must have an outlet-it must be released to someone. That's really why I draw."

Published in Dale Chihuly: Works on Paper, [exhibition brochure]. Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington, 1991-1992.

More essays about drawing:
Gesture As Image, Nathan Kernan
Dale Chihuly: Works on Paper, Mary Murray
Drawing in the Third Dimension, Michael Monroe

DRAWINGS