I’m giving in to glass transparency right now, (weird, because I tend to sneer at artists who substitute transparent bling for a voice). What’s utterly fascinating is the almost symbiotic relationship that transparent sculpture has with its environment. I want to learn to use that power in my work, and from what I’ve seen so far, it’ll be a helluva challenge.

Sculpting with glass is, for me, an exercise in controlling the movement of the viewer’s eye. This is something every artist does, of course, but typically it just happens at the surface. The artwork’s mass and volume are simply vehicles for presenting (or hiding) whatever is happening on the surface.

Transparent media are completely different. Artists working transparency must deal with what’s happening inside the piece, and how it’s interacting with their surroundings. People see into and through the piece, and surface constraints only exist if the artist chooses to restrict the viewer’s eye by deliberately stopping the light (i.e., making the piece opaque).

It’s an incredibly powerful feature that expands artistic choices dramatically, and (in my opinion) many artists who work in glass shy away from using transparency at all.

  • Transparent glass is beautiful and very strongly voiced, so it’s tempting to simply let the bling speak for itself. If you’re trying to express your own artistic voice, you frequently wind up fighting the glass.
  • Collectors, critics, (and galleries) seem to be more comfortable with conventional media, i.e., canvas, metal, and stone, and there’s this sense that transparent stuff is too utilitarian (and bling-ey) to make good art.
  • Transparency’s added dimensions are a lot harder to work with. You’re now making conscious design choices throughout the work’s entire three-dimensional volume, instead of just in on the surface.
  • You give up a measure of control over transparent works, since their appearance is so dependent on their environment.

A pate de verre artist uses particle size to control translucency and color, so we’re thinking about 3D depth and light control all the time. My most successful pate de verre pieces, IMO, are those that present depth, i.e., that send the viewer’s eye to just below the surface. Currents’ Birth, the blue piece above, is a good example.

Yet pate de verre still contains the eye maybe the first quarter-inch or so of the work. Sufficient light will make the piece seem to glow, but it will still register as opaque to the viewer even if it isn’t.

Beyond that first quarter-inch, the rest of the glass volume doesn’t contribute much to the design, and lighting simply highlights surface detail.

Shift the work to another setting and–unless there’s a really significant change in the power or color of the lights–its character and appearance won’t change all that much.

Transparency changes all that. Everyone else in the world knows that glass is transparent, but the real meaning and power of that are hitting me now that I’ve started casting transparent glass.

I’ve been lugging both pate de verre and transparent sculpture into different galleries and display environments for the last few months, and the seeing the vast difference between the two has been a powerful influence. Transparent works can be much more powerful precisely because they have a strong relationship with their environment.

I’m seeing that, with transparent sculpture, light and background are as much a part of the art as the traditional sculptural features: Form, color, and texture.


By Paul Foster: Studio lighting, grey backdrop

Take Currents Breaking, for instance. Paul Foster, my wonderful photographer, made this photograph (left). In his studio, this is a Caribbean blue work with hints of green at the throat, white on the tips of the breaking wave. The face looks stormy, pained or perhaps ecstatic. It’s a dramatic work (and I love his shots), but I was a bit surprised at the level of emotion in the piece when what I’d been shooting for was serenity.

Breaking’s character changed completely in a sunny window at Guardino Gallery (below, left). Her Caribbean blue turned sparkling aquamarine, lighthearted, almost frothy, a much happier and calmer piece that was closer to my original intent.

I watched her grow progressively more somber (and greener) as dusk approached, the window darkened and the light source changed to MR-16 halogens (below, center).

Terra-cotta walls, drizzly grey front lighting

So far, though, she’d had life and fire. When I put her under fluorescent lights at the Portland Convention Center (above, right), she turned extremely blue and cold and kinda dead, with almost no fire at all.

Where before I’d been able to pass my hand behind her and see a moving fleshtone, now the same action barely registered as a slightly darker shadow. (BTW, this piece contains no shift/dichro/pleichroic glass at all–it’s pure, pale-colored soda lime glass, and the photos have all been white-balanced)

At home, photographed on a drizzly-grey day in my gallery (which has highly saturated terra cotta walls–I may be the only human on the planet who sees burnt orange as a neutral) Breaking changed character again (right). In the soft front light, her surface is the most visible thing, showing more surface texture than any other view.

Her eye nearly vanishes and the color (in part because it’s against its near-complement) focuses the eye on the work. She’s still transparent (you can see the red walls through the glass), but the piece has become more two-dimensional, the fire has shifted to the top of the piece, and her mood is impassive and kinda sleepy. (BTW, I put all four colors of glass used in the piece to the right, for reference–thickness and the kiln make for a biiiig change)

I wondered how Breaking would look photographed in a high-key, pure white background; Paul said he’d tried that “…and it just killed all the drama. She went completely flat.” Interesting.

The photos don’t actually illustrate the change as dramatically as real life, but even so…Would you think these were the same piece? This little exercise has given me a huge new appreciation for the importance of good lighting and backgrounds with transparent sculpture.

The bigger question is how do I use (and control) this effect? Currents Breaking was deliberately designed with a LOT of surface and thickness changes (especially in the back, left), so that light would enter the piece and get bounced and refracted at every angle. It gave the work the glow I wanted, but did it also contribute to this whole chameleon thing?

Internal transparency is even more powerful in Riverflow (below). There, I chose to stop the light in some parts and increase its effect in others by sandblasting the sides and optically polishing the surface. I was going for the contrast in textures, purely a surface concern…but it turned out that what happened inside the glass made the piece.

Look down into Riverflow (right) , and a whole new world opens up–you’re trapped inside the glass, looking at bubbling shapes, drifts of air and color and strange illuminations. It’s both mesmerizing and claustrophobic.

Light Riverflow from the bottom, and it sends color all over the room. Light it from the sides, and it pulsates like a laser. Move the light at all–say, as sunlight and shadows move across the window–and the figures on the sides ripple and swirl just like moving water.

In both these sculptures, transparency is changing the character of the piece as the environment (or your viewing angle) changes. Internal transparency, quite by accident, made for much stronger and (I think) more powerful works.

So, how do I use that power and translate it into new (and presumably more effective) work? Happy accidents are all well and good, but how do I create happy on-purposes? How do I train myself to think in 3D transparency as well as surface design?

Yum. I think my brain is eagerly rubbing its virtual hands together in glee; I’ve just given it a whole new dimension for exploration.