Did seeing light passing through the delicate petals of a flower....
or through leaves, illuminating them in an unearthly glow....
Two Border sections; France ca. 1200; pot-metal glass and vitreous paint. At the Cloisters, NYC.
...inspire the builders of ancient churches, leading them to include the art of stained glass in their windows? The effect of light pouring through color, illuminating it as though it is shining from within, is very different from that of light bouncing from a solid surface. Both are beautiful, but there is something additional that comes with translucence, a sense of the spiritual, as light bonds with color.
Georges de la Tour, Saint Joseph the Carpenter, 1640s; oil on canvas, 54 x 40 in.
Georges de la Tour often shows dramatic light effects in his paintings, and in this work he goes farther by showing the Christ child's hand as translucent; the light becomes a part of the fingers, as though to point to the child's future.
Henri Matisse, Lilacs, 1914; oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 38 in.
Through the Renaissance, many painters used translucence to great effect by using thin layers of color, glazes, to make their paintings. When we come to the modern era, most artists worked directly with paint, without glazing or scumbling. Matisse, in a painting from one of my favorite years of his work (which I wrote about here), is using the oil paint thinly, so as to get the effect of light passing through it. In the upper left corner, he is showing the flowers shining against the dark.
Altoon Sultan, Fertilizer Tanks, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1997; egg tempera on panel, 9 x 10 7/8 in.
From the glorious to the very mundane: I have enjoyed painting images of plastic because of its translucence, the way the light shines through it, making a very ordinary object glow with vibrant life. And one of the qualities of egg tempera that has kept me working with it exclusively is that it is a translucent paint––between the opacity of oil and the transparency of watercolor––that allows for rich color effects. As much as I love the sparkle of sun on the landscape and light's flow over an object, there is a special joy in seeing color's translucent jewel-like shine.