The allure of light playing on coloured glass can be just as compelling as a strikingly painted canvas. And as aesthetes opt to brighten their interiors with glamorous glassware, art is becoming a major source of inspiration for glass-blowers. Aesthetically, it works both ways. Designer-makers create confident forms with uplifting colours, while homeowners buy glass, if not as an alternative to painting or sculpture, then as its artistic peer. “People are using glass vases and bowls as portable paintings, adding colour and interest around the home,” says Ann Layton, director of London Glassblowing studio and gallery.
A glass surface can indeed act as the perfect canvas, with depth of colour and filtered light creating stunning atmospheric effects. This is why glass artist Peter Layton, London Glassblowing’s founder, sought to “emulate the remarkable intensity and luminosity of Gauguin’s paintings” following a visit to the landmark Tate Modern exhibition in 2011. “The Tahitian landscapes with jungle colours were awe-inspiring, and I began experimenting immediately with strong greens and reds,” he recalls. The resulting series – Tahiti (bottle, £420) – has been one of his bestsellers.
While the abstract paintings of artist Howard Hodgkin inspired Layton’s vibrant Paradiso series (vases from £330; scent bottles from £315), his greatest muse is arguably David Hockney, who was a friend of his when they were teenagers in Bradford. “I greatly admire his use of colour and interpretation of landscape and water,” says Layton. Elements of Hockney’s palette, draughtsmanship and light-play echo in the luminous blue-greens of Layton’s Arrival of Spring (vases from £590), the rustic shades of Garrowby (vases and dishes from £420) and the boldly linear Felled Trees (vases from £350) – three collections created in collaboration with the Royal Academy for its Hockney exhibition in 2012.
The Royal Academy’s alliance with glass artist Bob Crooks during its Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 (Vincent vases £890) led to an invitation to mark its 2013 Manet exhibition with two magnificent vases (Manet Mosaics £1,500 each). “Painting my abstract ideas before hand-blowing the glass is part of the creative process,” says Crooks. Still, it’s a challenge to reflect a great artist’s work, as Layton discovered when the National Gallery proposed a series inspired by JMW Turner’s atmospheric painting The Fighting Temeraire. “Initially, I attempted to reproduce the ethereal effects of a small corner of the painting, before concluding that it had to be my interpretation of the original’s essence,” he says. Experimentation led to vessels (from £360) flaming with impressionistic sunsets in strong yellows, umbers and ochres. A further National Gallery collaboration (from £620) focuses on Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses. “The vast, contorted skyline proved very difficult to reproduce in glass and it took hundreds of sketches on the blowing iron, inventing and combining multiple techniques, to achieve the foreground rows of wheat,” says Layton. He eventually achieved visual and textural excellence by applying surface colour and etching to some, with the addition of internal colouring to others.
“Glass is the ideal medium to express the idea of continually changing light on landscape, sea and water, since its properties are inherently mutable – both in its molten state and in how the play of light creates endless nuances in the finished piece,” says glass artist Adam Aaronson. Monet’s sunrises, Whistler’s nocturnes and Turner’s treatment of light and water have all directly influenced him. “Monet’s Nymphéas, with all their intensity of colour and movement, specifically inspired my Watercolour series [vases from £250],” he says. “I also find Klimt’s use of colour very exciting” (Klimt-inspired tumbler, £15). However, the powerful vessels in Aaronson’s A Garden Within a Flower series (from £650) owe their bright hues and sculptural forms to 17th-century Dutch paintings. “In our digital world it’s hard to imagine a time when the intense colours in candlelit paintings of tulips and roses against a dark background were perceived as extraordinarily resonant,” he observes.
Bold handling of colour by the late US artist Mark Rothko is catnip for glass-maker Stewart Hearn. “Rothko’s work can look like simple blocks of colour when it is actually a very complex build-up of texture created by the colour tones and hues,” says Hearn. His Soft Pots (from £825; miniature limited editions from £325) mirror this approach, while subtle tonal blends in his tall, attenuated Freedom vases (from £990) achieve an equally painterly effect. Meanwhile, British abstract artists, including Hodgkin, Terry Frost and Patrick Heron, infuse glass specialist Rachael Woodman’s passionate creations. “John Hoyland’s use of colour stops me in my tracks and I also respond to Matisse, Chagall, Miró and Rothko,” she says. Indeed, Woodman calls her pieces “three-dimensional paintings” – a description clearly revealed in her sets of tube-like vessels (from £3,800 for a small group). “I make the elements separately, using the glass colours like tubes of paint when molten. Then, once cold, I put the composition together.”
An intriguing example of art/glass crossover was unveiled by leading Murano-glass furnace Venini at Milan’s Salone del Mobile last year. Alla Morandi, a homage to Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, was designed by architect Matteo Thun. The limited-edition glass vessels (€7,000 for a set of three) – hand-blown in smoky shades of wisteria, grape, straw, sand or crystal – look almost identical to bottles in Morandi’s paintings.
Still, most glass-makers seek only to evoke the essence of an artist’s vision. “I’ve always loved Bridget Riley’s work and wanted to capture its hypnotic energy and optical confusion,” says Allister Malcolm, currently resident glass artist at Broadfield House Glass Museum, near Stourbridge. “It would have been easy to apply one of her bold patterns to a glass surface. However, my intention was not to replicate a Riley image but to use her work as a starting point. I marvel that a simple yet clever pattern can have a disorientating effect on the mind, and I thought fun could be had by distorting lines through the optical qualities of glass. So I created a series of pieces with details applied to the back that could be seen from the front. The idea that the eye might be confused by the distortions adds an element of intrigue.” The Riley range (vase £396, scent bottle £96) is available from online gallery Bruntnell Astley.
This specialist site champions British studio glass, including work by Suffolk-based designer-maker Laura Hart. “I was smitten when my primary-school teacher suggested I look at Picasso creations such as Ma Jolie; my love of his work has never diminished,” says Hart. “What mattered was how I felt searching the shapes for the mysterious form hidden within.” Her light-refracting Optical Geometry collection (Picasso bowl, £364) recreates this experience. “I hand-cut four complementary colours, fused in two layers, to create up to 16 subtle shades, and the light projects a magical, abstract illusion similar to Picasso’s analytic cubism.”
The abstract marks in Simon Moore’s Objects with Marks vases (from £950), made while blowing the glass, are inspired by cave paintings and early calligraphy. Others use geometric shapes to reference the natural world. “I’ve always admired Andy Goldsworthy’s land art,” says glass artist Jaqueline Cooley. “Then I discovered Richard Shilling, who makes the most exquisite brightly coloured sculptures with leaves. I was immediately drawn to their luminosity and his choice of composition and wanted to recreate their essence in a more permanent material.” The geometric patterns and earthy tones of Cooley’s Leaf bowls (example pictured, £1,800) and 40sq cm wall panels (£1,500) are the enchanting results.
Meanwhile, conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s geometric structures and line drawings sowed formative seeds for glass-blower Liam Reeves. “His use of simple geometry to denote space, volume and presence was my starting point,” says Reeves. “The technique I use – vetro a reticello – was developed in Venice during the Renaissance. It creates a grid of opposing spirals, producing the effect of very precise and complex geometry. I use it to define the space my vessels occupy, the form they take.” This approach is showcased across his engaging Warp/Fade series (from £2,600). Similarly fine lines contrast with the irregular contours of Filigree Spirit Fruit (£2,900), hand-blown by Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert – a painter himself until he discovered the lure of hot liquid glass.
Artistic references are often led by the process used. “Looking at the drip marks of concrete finishes put me in mind of Jackson Pollock,” says glass artist George Papadopoulos. Using syringes to drip coloured resin on glass, he created an eye-catching outdoor sculpture that is internally illuminated at night for a London home (similar commissions about £30,000; indoor Waterfall sculpture pictured, £30,000-£40,000). Another Pollock fan is Katya Izabel Filmus, an artist based at Sunderland’s National Glass Centre. “I love the immediate and spontaneous effect of Pollock’s work; its ‘noise’ and colour,” she says. “My Scribe range [bowl pictured, £155] links to Pollock’s action paintings. I use layers of sheet glass, silkscreened with glass enamels, fused and slumped [shaped using moulds]. Then I scratch off the enamel with various tools and the glass surface records my movements.”
Ultimately, light-play is crucial to many glass artists’ most remarkable creations. “Using light to effectively mix colours is now a main aspect of my work,” says glass‑blower Tim Rawlinson, who takes inspiration from the way light is employed as an immersive medium by artists James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson. “In my Echoes of Light vessels [example pictured, £2,600], I overlap transparent colours to create a third echo colour – such as pink and blue to make purple – as light passes through. Light excites glass. It gives it an energy that transforms the material, projecting out into its surroundings.” And that emotive impact can be as powerful as any artwork.