How to Create Your Masterpiece: Lessons From Glassblowing Masters

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Have you ever seen glass blowing in person? A few months ago I wandered into a small independent glass blowing shop in Virginia, and was stunned by the beauty of this mystery. When I looked at the amber of the honey liquid glass bubbling in the overheated furnace, I saw a mysterious new creation boiling up to become reality.

A young glassblower was picking up the liquid yellow glass on the tip of his pipe, as if he were nonchalantly putting honey on his mega spoon at breakfast. Then that glassy honey would become something entirely different – a Christmas ornament, candleholder, lamp, or plate. The basic glassblowing process is amazing, but it can also be taken to unbelievable heights – as in Murano Venetian glass or Chihuly’sEmerald Green Seaform Set with Yellow Lip Wraps. These masterpieces can take your breath away.

We can learn a lot from this amazing craft. The glassblowing process provides excellent parallels on how we may incrementally build our new ideas into a masterpiece. Just imagine that every idea or new project is your molten glass, which you can shape into something that hasn’t existed before. The secrets of producing remarkable glassblowing art can be applied to your everyday work process.

One big question is what differentiates a masterpiece from a “good enough” product, and how we can create a masterpiece every time. Do we need to give our best every time we begin a new project or enterprise? Or should we settle for being in the top 100?

I believe deeply that we shouldn’t just settle for good, that the only way to succeed is to put our souls into every idea, every new project and each new job. Only then will we be completely satisfied that we haven’t shortchanged ourselves.

But let’s get back to the glassblowing process. This craft requires three critical elements: special ingredients, high temperatures, and great focus and precision. In addition to these, there are at least four distinct steps to the process from which I’ll draw parallels to our projects. Let’s start with the first fundamental, choosing our ingredients.

Critical Element #1: Special Ingredients

While the glassmaking process depends heavily on perfect execution at each stage, there are specific secrets in each distinct masterpiece. For example, the secret to the amazing beauty of the Venetian glass is the raw materials Italian masters used for centuries.

Sand, the most basic element of the process, contains myriad impurities which discolor the glass. To produce transparent, colorless glass, called cristallo, Italians replaced ordinary sand with quartz pebbles called cogoliCogoli need to be repeatedly heated and dipped into cold water and then grounded into a fine powder for melting.

Secondly, Venetians used a Levant soda ash as the fluxing agent, which is absolutely crucial to make the glass melting at a lower temperature.

The final step was to add manganese to the mix, which helped to prevent colorization and lengthen the time that glass would stay molten.

The glassblower mixes all these ingredients, heats, stirs and cools them repeatedly. The perfect outcome is a crystal clear batch of molten glass. Italian maestri seek “clarity of color, universal thickness, absolute symmetry and balance, and last but not least, a unique design.”

Your special ingredients are your ideas, your dreams, the minerals that only you have in your soul. You need to start your process with this vision, just like the Venetian masters, and have absolute clarity about what you want to achieve. With clarity of vision, you can find other necessary components to make your idea a reality. Mix common sense ideas (ordinary sand) with new innovative approaches from other industries. Develop your own cogoli and test it until you see the perfect fit for your project.

Critical Element #2: Intense Heat

To transform raw materials into glass, a craftsman heats them, maintaining the temperature around 2,400° F. At this temperature the glass emits enough heat to appear almost white hot. Then the glass needs to be “fined out” which allows the bubbles rise out from the mass. After that, the temperature is decreased to around 2,000° F. During this phase, the glass has a distinct shining orange color. Most of glassblowing is done between 1,600 and 1,900° F. Finally, annealing is usually done between 700 and 900° F.

Just as in glassblowing, any great idea or a new project requires a “high temperature” of intensive thinking. Your ideas should virtually be melted into the fire of the thinking process. Don’t rush to implementation – instead, struggle with the core concepts of what your vision is, whom it involves, and how to best make it reality. Engage in an intensive round of questioning everything about your idea. Invite ideas from those around you to improve the core of your vision, and once the core is set, to refine the edges.

After passing through the intensive phase, let it cool off. Sit on your idea for a while, consider it from other aspects as you engage in other work, and you will find that your thoughts begin to bubble into new shapes.

Critical Elements #3: Focus and Precision


The major tools used by a glassblower are the blowpipe, punty rod, bench, marver, blocks, jacks, paddles, tweezers, paper, and a variety of shears. The elaborate process of transforming the molten glass into the final shape requires major concentration and focus. You must have steady hands to make your glass beautiful.

Of course, the same applies to our real time projects. We need to have intense focus in everything we do. Use various methods of creative thinking to finesse your project. For example, you may employ Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), which is now widely used by world’s largest corporations.

Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, the authors of Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, believe that by using specific templates (your precision instruments), you can successfully reach your goals. The technique is based on a number of templates, such as subtraction, division, multiplication, task unification and attribute dependency.

Let’s apply these “tweezers” to polish our ideas:

Subtraction – If you remove an essential part of an existing bestselling product, and begin thinking how you could make it work better, that’s subtraction. This could be iTouch (iPhone minus its calling function), or “ear buds” replacing traditional headphones.

Division – If you divide a particular component from a product and use it separately in a way not initially planned, that’s the division technique. For example, exercise dumbbells serve us well without the long, heavy bars that come with traditional dumbbells.

Multiplication – In this case you will have a component that is modified or copied in a way that initially seems unnecessary. Remember your first bike with training wheels?

So make sure that you use all your jacks and tweezers to pull that perfect form out of your idea glass.

Beyond the three critical elements we covered, let’s take a look at some basic steps of glassblowing, which are instructive for us as we consider our projects.

Step #1: Preheat Your Blowpipe


The first thing the glassblower does, assuming he has ingredients, heat, and tools, is to preheat the blowpipe. Likewise, during your thinking stage you need to expose yourself to all possible sources that might shed light on your new idea. Pre-heat your thinking process by doing extensive analysis of the available tools and methods to resolve your problem.

Step #2: Dip and Roll


The glassblower’s second step is to dip the blowpipe in the molten glass in thefurnace. This will collect the glass on the end of a blowpipe. Then he rolls it on themarver, a stab of marble or a thick, flat piece of steel. By marvering the glass, the craftsman creates a cool surface (skin) on the glass blob, which allows him to shape it further.

In the same way, as you dip your new project on the tip of your blowpipe, you’ll gather the most important thoughts in one. Marver your filtered ideas so that you can further shape them. Here, you are getting to the crux of the matter. Once your ideas are placed in the open, you have another chance to do a reality check.

Step #3: Blow Air – Create Your Prototype


At some glassblowing shops, visitors are invited to blow air into the pipe and create a bubble in the glass. This is the fun part! You see your idea beginning to take shape. In glassblowing and in real life, once you’ve figured out the size of your piece, you need to stop blowing or pushing it further. This is your prototype. This is your first step to your masterpiece. This is what you’ll test, refine, and polish.

Step #4: Bench Time – Perfecting Your Last Mile

What happens next is that what differentiates a masterpiece from a good work. The glassblower attaches the molten glass to an iron rod or a punty to shape and move the hollow glass piece from the blowpipe to finalize the top. He works on the benchwith all of his tools. There are various ways to create patterns and alter color to blown glass.


Masters may roll molten glass in powdered color or larger pieces of colored glass. Other methods include the use of rods of colored glass and rods cut in cross-sections to reveal patterns. For example, the master can arrange these pieces of color in a pattern on a flat surface, and then roll a bubble of molten glass over them. This, my friends, is the final mile.

The last mile is the most difficult part of any journey. It’s hot, you’re tired, but giving your utmost attention to every detail will make or break your project. This is when you need to literally pour your soul out to make your project take its perfect shape.

It seems to me that this is the most important part of the process, when you’re working on perfection with all your might. You become one with your idea, you are “flowing in that air of creativity”. Only then are your chances to create a true masterpiece higher than ever. Don’t escape from being in that moment, but embrace it, and live here as long as you can.

To create a true masterpiece, your work needs to magnetize people. It needs to pull them away from reality to places they only can dream about. Your work must engage people and make them better.


Optional Step #5: Taking it Beyond Perfection

As you give yourself away to this process, you might come up with something …. totally new. Something unconventional. Something not in your original plan!

This is exactly what Dale Chihuly did with his mysterious glass formations. Chihuly, the world renowned glassmaker, devoted his life to exploring the impossible – creating avant-garde glass as fine art. Chihuly basically questioned why glass objects needed to be symmetrical. Instead of pushing molten glass into symmetrical shapes, Chihuly used centrifugal force and the heat of the furnace to make forms that deliberately allowed glass to spin off-center.

Thus Chihuly allowed the glass find its final organic way. This revolutionary way of finding a perfect shape was like living on the edge, where one second could result in success or failure.

To follow Chihuly’s example, begin with questioning the status quo in your industry, looking at the hidden angles, and daring to change your perspective. This audacity to make your own path creates people like Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. This is not for everyone, mind you, but for those few who wish to redefine their worlds.

And so you have the choice here, as with everything else in life. You may study the precise craft of glassblowing, work hard, get a bit creative, and be satisfied with the perfect orbs of glass you produce. Or, you may take this craft to new heights and challenge people to think in new ways. Whichever you choose, enjoy the flow!

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Images: Authors’ pictures at the glassblowing shop in Southwest Virginia and Chihuly’s exhibit at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Andrey Gidaspov is a published author, international business expert, and a passionate “dot connector.” He is passionate about connecting people and ideas, creating new social ventures and helping non-profits find new funding streams. 

Follow him on Twitter (@AndreyGidaspov) and check out his blog (www.gidaspov.com) for more useful tips on creativity, innovative marketing and fundraising.



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