Building Translucence

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The dazzling spectacle of translucent water revealing two different palettes within the same visual field always seduces my eye.  The palette below the water is more subdued, often occluded by surface motion, shadows, reflections and floating material. The palette of above the surface has both brighter lights and darker darks and more saturated color. This condition is evident even in the photograph in example 1.

Example 1. Winter Stream, Photograph using Serpentine design.

The problem has intrigued artists for 600 years. 500 years ago Da Vinci presented his solution in the Baptism of Jesus by John from Verrocchio’s studio.  We often confuse reflections, shadows and translucent effects. After all, they are frequently interwoven in nature.

Artists generally avoided the issue of translucence in favor of painting a surface reflections. This eliminates the thorny problem of translucence while still providing persuasive evidence of the presence of water.

John Singer Sargent was an artist attracted to the challenge of translucence. Notice in both the oil example (example 2) and the watercolor example (example 3) how the areas of water employ the more subdued and narrower palette range than the areas above water.

Example 2. John Singer Sargent watercolor, 1906,

Example 3. John Singer Sargent oil, Val d’aosta, 1907.

Andrew Wyeth follows the same palette principles.  The shadowed areas simply disappear into uniform darkness.  The arc of light along the bottom left represents the occluding reflection of the sky which frames the adjacent translucent territory (example 4).

Example 4. Andrew Wyeth, watercolor,

My own paintings often begin with photos which I recomposed in Photoshop. Here’s an example (example 5).  In the painting I changed the palette, redirected the composition, eliminated extraneous objects, changed proportions, simplified areas, and added more submerged material to augment the sensation of translucence. Examples 6 and 7 show two steps in the development of the painting. Example 6 presents the first step, a more abstract composition.

Example 5.  Step one, Cropped photo with some enhancements.

Example 6. Step two the blocked composition presenting a more abstract and simpler design.

Example 7. Step three, the painting “Vernal Stream with Solar Flare” in its present state, an oil on brushed silver Dibond.

Example 8 illustrates principles of diminishing edge acuity and color recession. The foreground has more reds and yellows and deeper darks. These colors fade into blue-greens in the distance just as the edge acuity similarly dissolves. We see occluding reflections from the rear advance toward the foreground but, give way to the colors and sharpened shapes of the foreground’s submerged material

Example 8.  Translucent Vernal Pool, oil on brushed silver Dibond,

I invite you to join me in November at Art of the Carolinas, sponsored by Jerry’s Artarama in Raleigh, N.C. I have three one-day workshops. Friday, November 15, it’s “Spectacular Flowers” from 9 to 4, use code FR 1907 to register.  Saturday, it’s Water Scapes” from 9 to 4, use code SA1907 to register.  And, Sunday, it’s “Natural Patterns, Abstracting Nature” from 9 to 4 use code SU1907 to register. Go to to register.

I have one opening in my Raliegh, NC workshop at the Centerpiece Gallery.  This is a 3 day workshop covering historical as well as new techniques and ideas. September 11 through 13.  Call them at 919 838 8530 or,

I invite you to join me at an opening of my work at the Attic Gallery in Camas, Washington (across the river from Portland, Oregon) on  September 6th  from 5 to 8 PM.  I expect to be painting a plein demonstration there during the afternoon. Contact the Attic Gallery at 421 NE Cedar Street, Camas , Washington 360-833-9747 or contact at







2 Responses

  1. Ken Wright

    Thank you for your gifted insights. Now I need to get busy painting again this fall!

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