The Art of Experimenting

The Art of Experimenting
By Gil Reynolds

Originally published in Stained Glass News issue #59 Feb. 2003

I experiment a lot, its fun. This is often what I do. It seems like all of my glass work falls into one or more of the following three categories; finished work for others, finished work for me and experiments. All three are rewarding but the experiments take the most time and I seem to get the most out of them. To me experimenting is a form of practice. A musician wouldn't dream of performing in public without practicing their instrument enough to become proficient, yet for some reason, people think they can just go out and make perfect glass on the first try.

It just amazes me how little people are willing to experiment. My favorite, and this is really common, is the person that calls and they have an expensive disaster and they are just hoping that it is my fault. They had this great idea so they went out and bought some really expensive glass, they had never done anything this complex or large before, yet they just know it would be perfect, but it doesn't turn out perfect on the first try. They are disappointed, frustrated and looking for someone or something to blame. In most cases all of the problems that occur could have been anticipated and solved if only they had been willing to experiment a bit first, but no, not them.

They got bubbles under the glass, but they didn't experiment with firing large pieces of glass to determine how to avoid bubbles, so it is the shelf primers fault. A particular color of glass changed color when it was fired, they are shocked by the change, yet they didn't test fire the glass first to see how it would behave in the kiln and now it is the glass companies fault that their piece is a failure. They didn't want their expensive glass to devitrify and have a scummy surface, so they bought some overglaze. The problem is they didn't experiment to find out how to use the product, so they either put it on to thick, or used a dirty brush or didn't clean the glass well before hand or they didn't fire it hot enough and now their piece has a filmy surface and they go tell everyone how the overglaze ruined they master piece. You get the picture?

I have fused glass long enough to know that it usually will not turn out perfect on the first firing. It may be very cool, but not exactly like I envisioned. I accept that fact and start experimenting. I like breaking things down into the basic steps and then testing each step one at a time. This gives me less chance of having two possible causes of a single event. So I isolate the potential new areas and start playing. For example, I want to make a piece using System 96 glass, fused then bent into a new 'mini mold" all being fired in an Evenheat 'Hot Box' kiln. New glass, new mold, new kiln.

The first thing I need to do it test fire a piece of clear glass from that product line. Once it is cooled, I can view the fired clear glass under polarized light to see if I have excessive annealing stress. If I anneal for to short a period of time or if I anneal at the wrong temperatures I will have so much stress in the glass that I will not be able to heat it up to bend it into the mold without it breaking. So I have cut two circles out of clear System 96 which will have very close to the same annealing properties as the colored System 96 I eventually plan on using.

Fig 1

Fig. 1

I took a white paint pen and drew some grid lines one inch apart on the glass. These will show me how and where the glass stretches as it flowing into the mold. (FIG 1)

I fired the two layers to 1550 degrees F over a one hour and 20 minute period. One hour into the firing, I turned the kiln to "HI" and within 10 minutes, I had a big bubble in the center of the glass. I had to turn off the kiln and lift up one edge of the glass to let the air out and flatten my piece. (Made a note - Do Not use the HI setting when the glass is that close to the elements)

Fig 2

Fig. 2

Fig 3

Fig. 3

I then let the kiln cool down to 1050 with the lid on. This took 14 minutes. I then turned the kiln to a setting of 1.5 with held the kiln at the 1050 temperature for 30 minutes. After that I turned the kiln off and let it cool on its' own down to room temperature.

The next morning I looked at the circle under the polarized filters. (FIG 2) I can see a medium bright white edge which indicates a bit of annealing stress. (Made a note- I need a longer anneal) I had to go pretty slow during the 'heat-up to bend' cycle (1:14) and I annealed by letting the kiln cool to 1100 then set it on "low" and let it cool slowly down to 650. This gave me a stress free edge. (FIG 3) The resulting bent piece seemed to have uniform stretching with no unusual distortion of my white lines. (FIG 4) Now I have all the information I need to make some finished pieces in the Hot Box. (FIG 5)

This is how I normally approach all of my kiln projects. A little test here, some experimenting there and presto - I have a piece that works. Now, this can be a bit confusing to those that come into my studio. There are lots of bits and pieces of unfinished work. They look at these and wonder - "what is this guy up to?" Then out of nowhere comes the well meaning critic. "What is this supposed to be?" they ask. "You call this art?"

Fig 4

Fig. 4

"Oh Boy," I think, "Here we go again." You see, most people don't like being criticized, yet when you make something, others seem to feel it's their God given right to be a critic.

Especially when it comes to art, it seems everyone is a critic. It appears that a large portion of the population knows what art is and what it is not. The problem lies in the fact that there doesn't seem to be much of a consensus on the matter. Opinions on the subject are like belly buttons - everyone has a different one.

Fig 5

Fig. 5

I think part of the reason people don't experiment more is that they have to defend themselves against the well meaning critic. Consider the wife that comes home from a stimulating workshop, her head spinning from all of the new techniques she has learned and all of the great ideas she can visualize doing. In the process of explaining to her spouse or friend all of the exciting new pieces she is going to make, she show him the little experiments she made in class and all of a sudden the bubble is popped. "What are these supposed to be?" they ask. "They were our in class projects to practice the new techniques," she answers. "They don't look very good; you paid how much money to make these?" Now she is in defense mode. The critic sent out the message that everything has to pass somebody else's "approval test" to have value. The next thing out of the kiln better look good or else. That attitude just kills the experimenter in us all.

Dan Fenton calls this need for everything to turn out perfect - "Masterpiece Fever." I see it all the time at the workshops I teach. Here is a group of students learning a brand new process and yet they are more concerned with how it will look than they are about how to get through all of the steps. It doesn't make sense to me.

My advice is to not worry about others. Experiment with reckless abandon - that is where the "good stuff" can be found. Dream your dreams. Practice your craft. Aim for quality but don't be afraid to take chances. Trust you hunches. If you can be truly happy doing the work, the results become just the cherry on top.

"Before you criticize people, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away. And you have their shoes." (J K Lambert)

Until Next Time,
Keep a warm Kiln