Chihuly – A Colorful Icon

By Louise Irvine

“I’m obsessed with color – never saw one that I didn’t like” Dale Chihuly once claimed, and this is abundantly clear in the Art on Fire exhibit at WMODA. The Hot Glass Gallery is an immersive experience of intense, saturated colors from Chihuly’s expressive palette. Chihuly has had a lifelong engagement with color and light which has transformed our appreciation of glass as an art form.

Chihuly’s first glass bubble was blown in 1965 when he experimented with melting a piece of stained glass. As a young student on his first travels to Europe, he was drawn to the stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals, and the intense drama of the illumination. Even before he discovered glass, he was investigating color. Once, during a 60-hour train ride to Russia, he created thousands of color samples as he mixed as many colors as he could from a set of Winsor & Newton watercolors.

His exploration of color in glass began consistently in 1981 when he started creating his Macchia series with his gaffer William Morris. The “handkerchief” forms were inspired by the Fazoletto vases from the 1940s made at the Venini factory in Venice where Chihuly benefitted from a formative glassblowing residency. The Macchia name was derived from the Italian for stain, smear, or spot and the Macchiaioli were Italian artists who painted outdoors in Tuscany to capture natural light and color like the French Impressionists.

“I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in a way they have never experienced.” Chihuly

Chihuly describes how his joyful experimentation with cascades of color in glass began: "The Macchia series began with my waking up one day wanting to use all 300 of the colors in the hot shop. I started by making up a color chart with one color for the interior, another color for the exterior, and a contrasting color for the lip wrap, along with various jimmies and dusts of pigment between the gathers of glass. Throughout the blowing process, colors were added, layer upon layer. Each piece was another experiment. When we unloaded the ovens in the morning, there was the rush of seeing something I had never seen before. Like much of my work, the series inspired itself. The unbelievable combinations of color—that was the driving force."

For his Macchia series of billowing sculptures in blazing colors, Chihuly created a unique process that allowed him to contrast the interior and exterior glass colors by sandwiching a layer of white glass to stop them from blending them together. The white “clouds”, as he called them, allowed the inside and outside colors to pop. Blowing with a wide range of colors is challenging because each color attracts and retains the heat differently but as his team’s techniques improved, the Macchia forms got bigger and bigger. Lip wraps, thin ribbons of glass in contrasting colors, capture the graceful undulations of the voluptuous glass sculptures.

“I don’t know if something can be too colorful.” Chihuly

The dazzling juxtaposition of colors in Chihuly’s Macchia Forest at WMODA combines with his giant Ikebana flower arrangements to conjure up the impression of a riotous garden in full bloom. When the Smithsonian Institution honored Chihuly in 2016, the Wiener collection was arranged like a garden in the center of the Building Museum. Many of Chihuly’s fantastical plant forms seem to slink from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. They derive from his love of nature and flowers, which is rooted in happy childhood memories of his mother’s garden, blooming with dahlias, azaleas, and rhododendrons. Viola Chihuly was an avid gardener and had one of the most beautiful gardens in their neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington.

“Color is always an outgrowth of nature—sunsets, to be sure, the treasures of the sea, the vibrant flower gardens he was always warned not to step on as a youth.” Viola Chihuly interview Molten Magic

Van Gogh’s sunflowers, the subject of Chihuly’s first art history paper at college, introduced him to the artist’s bold palette of golden yellows and glorious sunshine. Viola Chihuly was “crazy for sunsets” and she used to enjoy the spectacular sunsets on the hill behind their home with her two young sons.  Chihuly’s glass art also evokes his deep ties to the ocean in the Pacific Northwest. The ebb and flow of the tides over sandy beaches and craggy rocks inspired a wide range of marine colors and creatures in Chihuly’s Seaforms series, ranging from stormy teal and emerald green seas to calm hues of celadon, cerulean, and cyan blue water under azure skies.

“Water is the one thing that I can assure you is a major influence on my work and my life and everything I do.” Chihuly

Seeing Chihuly’s vibrant work with color is like being immersed in three-dimensional surround sound. His extravagant installations with their explosive colors have been likened to fireworks bursting. Parallels have been drawn also with the glowing lava flow of Washington’s active volcano, Mount Rainier. Chihuly often chooses contrasting hues from the color wheel which is divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors arranged in spectral order like a rainbow. His color combinations are often surprising and extremely effective. His descriptions of the Macchia designs demonstrate his revelry in shape and color, for example, Robin’s Egg Blue with Rose Lip Wrap, Cadmium Green with Red Lip Wrap and Magnolia Pink with Canary Yellow Lip Wrap.

“I can’t understand it when people say they don’t like a particular color. . . . How on earth can you not like a color?” Chihuly

The Venetian series combines Chihuly’s deep-rooted interest in organic forms with his exuberant chromatic concepts inspired by Italian painters and Murano glassmakers. Often Chihuly would work out his ideas for shapes and colors in his huge, spontaneous paintings, inspired by artists like Jackson Pollock. He works with fluid liquid acrylics which he pours and paints with a large broom. This releases his creative energy and helps communicate his ideas to his gaffer and studio assistants. Two of his paintings for Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio restaurant in San Francisco are now on display at WMODA together with his Persian wall installation created for that location.


Chihuly’s Seaforms

Chihuly’s Ikebana series

Chihuly’s Basket series

Chihuly & Nature