In Pursuit of Translucence and Reflections

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In my search for the origins of translucence in art I found a late fifth century mosaic In Ravenna commissioned by Theodoric the Great (see example 1). This is early Christian art, a depiction of Jesus and John the Baptist as he baptizes Jesus. Jesus appears soft and almost dewy here unlike later depictions where his thin more masculine image develops.  Let’s stay focused on translucence.  We see his body semi-submerged in a pool of blue. The value and color of his body shifts below the waterline.

Example 1. Mosaic from the Arian Chapel in Ravenna, late 5th century,

One thousand years later Da Vinci and Verrocchio (in Verrocchio’s studio) will paint the same theme also presenting the illusion of translucence (example 2). Notice the value change in Jesus’ body above and below the waterline.  The intentions of artists have changed over the thousand years. By the renaissance artists quested for natural realism as opposed the 5th century’s didactic glorification and storytelling. The purpose of art had changed.

Example 2. Verrocchio and Da Vinci and others on the Baptism of Jesus by John,

Let’s fast forward 400 years to 1907.  Here’s John Singer Sargent whose primary concern is the transmutation of his feelings and observed experience in nature (example 3). Figures are unnecessary here.  But, an observed experience of translucence is still a priority.  Here we see how sunlight bounces more brightly off objects above the water’s surface, how shadows help elevate objects above their respective surfaces, how colors below the water’s surface are less intense than those above the surface, how value contrasts are greater above the water than below it, and how we see through the water when looking directly down into the pool but, find our vision slowly occluded as we raise our focus. Observe how the translucent area becomes clouded by the vague reflection of  grey-blue skyl in the upper area of the pool. Finally, see how the motion of water is indicated by wavy blurring and overlapping gestures.

Example 3, John Singer Sargent, 1907, oil,

In my following step-by-step examples I will illustrate the phenomena of translucence and reflections co-habiting the same pictorial space. See how one develops shadows, values, colors and textures for content lying below the surface and how that contrasts with sky reflections and other content lying on the surface.  Let’s begin by laying in basic close-value colors with a few rough outlining contours (example 4).

Example 4. Step one of ”Sky and Reflections Mosaic” an oil on brushed enameled silver Dibond, 24×24 inches,

In example 5 notice the further development of discreet shapes while maintaining close values. Also observe that the upper area now has high contrasts and more articulated shapes. Some of  these shapes were created by using a small squeegee cutting into the still wet oil paint.

Example 5. Step two of “Sky and Reflections Mosaic”,

In example 6 you see how  I have overlaid patches of sky shapes (sky light reflections) . These shapes are arranged to reveal areas of the earlier substrate. This  creates a feeling of tree reflections. The sky patches are sharp edged but gently undulate to suggest a slight motion to the watery surface.

Example 6. Step three of “Sky and Reflections Mosaic”,

In example 7 painting you see reflections dancing as dark darting forms on the surface of the bright sky reflecting on water.  These marks were mostly created using a corner of a squeegee as if it were a Chinese calligrapher’s brush but, cutting into the paint rather than adding strokes.  The substrate here was darker with diverse patterns.

Example 7.  “Sky and Water Dance” current state.

My final set of examples shows you a work in process. I have not yet reached the painting’s final stage  in which I intend to add patches of sky reflections.  You can see this progression in steps one and two (examples 8 and 9).  I am not unhappy with this present state of the painting. But, it needs to dry before subsequent layers can be applied.

Example 8, “Hiding in Plain Sight” step one, oil on enameled brushed silver laminated aluminum composite, 36×36 inches,

Example 9. “Hiding in Plain Sight” step two, and the current state of the work,

Example 10. “Hiding in Plain Sight” step three, there is no image for this step yet. I am waiting for this stage to dry.

I invite you to join me for online demonstrations and talks and voluntary personal critiques using digital drawing tools. It’s gentle. It’s fun! I promise!  Register at

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