September 7, 2012


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.


  1. What a gorgeous post...illuminating all! Glad you included your pastel fertilizer tanks!

  2. Light when captured like this is amazing.

  3. You always suggest an idea that had not occurred to me before. And that single rose is so heavenly I can imagine someone making that mental leap.

  4. It is just remarkable, isn't it, Lisa?
    Linda, I'm really pleased that I've brought you a new thought; I've been mulling over the idea of translucence in plants for quite a while, but just this week thought of stained glass and those paintings.

  5. Translucence is something I work with in design. That is why you might want to position grasses on East/West axis. Also: Canna leaves really look like stained glass!

    1. Julie, it's so interesting that you think of translucence in garden design, but of course it makes sense. All those grass heads sparking with sun must be beautiful; canna leaves too.