Is that the best you can do?

Winston Lord was assistant to Henry Kissinger when Kissinger was National Security Advisor, and he tells a funny story about how demanding Kissinger could be.  Lord had been drafting a presidential foreign policy report, and Kissinger kept asking for revisions, handing it back with “is this the best you can do?”.  In Lord’s own words:

Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, “Is this the best you can do?” So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” He then looked at me and said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”

I ask myself “is this the best you can do?” frequently when I pull beads out of the annealer.  There are days when I’m delighted, particularly when I’ve done freeform, organic work.  Then there’s yesterday’s attempt at a Pyramid Butterflyfish:


It’s a cute fish.  I felt comfortable making it, (by the end of my first fish my nerves were crispy fried, more on that below).  There aren’t any major flaws as a generic form, but as an accurate representation of the fish it’s not the best I can do.  Here’s a photo of the model to refer to:

Courtesy Dr Paddy Ryan,

What needs improving?

  • My encased yellow is too amber–next time I’m using bright yellow.
  • Conversely, the encased yellow is too light for the head–I really need a darker brown/black, and need a swath of bright yellow between that and the white.
  • The grey on the edge of the tail fin is too opaque–next time I’ll try transparent grey, or white encased in transparent grey.
  • The triangle of white the fish is named for isn’t crisp and straight enough.
  • I kind of like the mottled effect produced by adding dots of white encased with clear on the sides, but adding that extra glass made the little guy a bit chunky–he’s thicker than the natural fish.  That’s not obvious in the photo.
  • And finally, (and this is the big one), he doesn’t look like a butterflyfish, he looks like a grunt.  His mouth is too low on his head.

I’m not worried about the difficulty I had reproducing the dorsal spines (very evident in the fish photo) because they’re not always obvious: fish will raise and lower their spines to reflect their emotional state.  Same for the long sharp pelvic fins (circled in red below)–thin projections like that are a bit beyond my skills at the moment, and they’re the first thing to break.

Hemitaurichthys polylepis Pyramid butterflyfish

I mentioned my first fish was nerve wracking, but it wouldn’t be obvious if you watched me now, it’s only when you try to do it that you get stressed out.  The first issue is heat control:  the soft glass I’m using expands and contracts significantly when heated and cooled.  That means that you have to keep the glass hot during the entire process, which for a complicated structure can be an hour or more.  Keeping a round bead hot isn’t too hard (just run it into the flame every 30 seconds or so), but the minute you start adding thin projections like fins and spines you run the risk of melting them when you put them back into the flame.  Thin projections by themselves will cool without cracking (not true of thick bodies and beads), but if they do cool, and then they’re hit with intense heat, they’ll crack.  Masters of soft glass sculpture are very good at working out how to build complicated forms, keeping the bulky parts hot without ever reheating the thin features they’re finished with.

And the other issue when you’re learning how to do this is how to sculpt the look you want.  The mouth gave me fits–it’s easy to create big comical lips by putting on a big blob of red and pressing a horizontal cut with a knife, but I had a hard time making a realistic small mouth.  You can create eyes with a dot of black for a pupil, covered by clear, but getting the eyes placed symmetrically is hard.  Fins are frustrating, because you can easily flatten a blob, but to get ridges for fin rays and pull sharp points is difficult.  You have to know what you want to do, have the right tool at hand, and make your move when the glass is ready.  And you can’t get too carried away with the fine detail, or you’ll hear the dreaded “snick!” of a cracking bead.

If you’d like to see what I’m aspiring to (a guy’s gotta have dreams), check out Wesley Fleming’s amazing work here.



One thought on “Is that the best you can do?

Comments are closed.