Technique: William Poulson: Piecing Stained Glass Together

0704poul1_600x333_2California stained-glass artist William Poulson uses his knowledge of carpentry and color to create unique stained-glass artwork.

by Jennifer King

1988, glass, 8’ 5” x 14’ 3”.
Collection the artist.

Like many artists, William Poulson is constantly—and sometimes unexpectedly—inspired by unique qualities in nature. Activities, such as rock climbing near his home in Arnold, California, often awaken solutions to piecing together stained glass back in his studio.

Piecing things together is one of the most important considerations for a stained glass artist. "When I'm creating a pattern for a new image, I have to think carefully about how to break things up," the artist explains. "With stained glass, you have to design a structure that will be technically sound—that won't weaken or jeopardize the glass." Integrating solid shapes is a valuable lesson for all artists, whether they are working with glass, wood, clay, or paint—all of the elements have to fit together to create a cohesive whole.

Forest Light
1997, sculpted wood
and slumped glass, 30 x 20.
Private collection.

Today, Poulson is fortunate to be earning his living primarily from his art, but this wasn't always the case—his first career was in carpentry. In the mid-1930s, however, when the intense labor of the trade began to take its toll on his body, Poulson began looking for an alternative. A friend encouraged him to look into working with stained glass, which appealed to his lifelong interest in art as well as his ongoing desire to work with his hands.

Without much formal art education, Poulson has learned to establish effective compositions by studying other artists' work. Establishing golden proportions to position his focal areas, paying attention to positive and negative space, and using aerial perspective to create the illusion of depth are just some of the principles he has learned. “The key to learning from other artists,” says Poulson, “is to ask yourself, ‘How can I adapt what they're doing to what I'm doing?’” Some of his studies have focused on artists of the past, particularly the great Japanese woodblock printmakers, Hiroshige and Hokusai. "Back in the 1970s, when I was living in Hawaii," explains Poulson, "I met a fantastic older woman, a potter and artist, who used to say, 'If it's big, make it bigger.' I still follow that principle of exaggeration today to enhance the mood of my pieces and make them more exciting."

White Light
1998, sculpted wood
and slumped glass, 30 x 20.
Private collection.

Much of his work now combines his dual interests in working with glass and wood, which couldn't make Poulson happier. "I love designing pieces because it appeals to my artistic, creative side," he says, "but I also love building the screens, tables, and lamps that house my stained-glass work. That's the part of me that likes to construct things."

Color is also vital to Poulson’s stained-glass pieces. "I usually start with the local colors found in nature," the artist notes, "but when that gets translated to glass, the colors usually become far more dramatic. I think it's the way the light comes through the glass. Color in glass is brilliant!"

A lot of Poulson's work is commissioned—such as two recent wall murals for a hotel in Tokyo—and his process includes some painting. "After I've come up with a concept for a commissioned piece, I like to sketch it out in watercolor," he explains. "That way, the client can see and approve the painted sketch before I start building the piece." From there, he gets to indulge in what is clearly one of his favorite parts of the process: purchasing the glass for the piece. "I'm like a kid in a candy store," he says gleefully.

0704poul4_511x600 0704poul5_427x600
Rising Moon
2001, glass with sculpted wood,  6’ x 5’. Private collection
Morning Glories 
2002, leaded art glass, 6’ x 3’ 6”. Private collection.

In addition to his commissioned work, Poulson makes sure he spends a few hours each day working on personal pieces. His current project is the second in a series depicting Yosemite National Park in all four seasons, the first of which is called Tissiack. This piece “describes the patterns and colors of nighttime,” Poulson explains, and leaves the viewer wondering exactly how Poulson puts the pieces together.

About the Artist
Primarily self-taught, William Poulson has worked in stained glass since the early 1970s, when he combined his love of woodworking with his love of glass work to create one of a kind art pieces for homes and businesses. He works out of his studio in Arnold, California.

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