Art Term Tuesday: Transparent, Translucent, & Opaque

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

I’d like to think that everyone has those basic elementary school lessons that didn’t quite stick, whether it’s diagramming sentences, calculating percentages, or recognizing constellations. It’s those pieces of information that, when needed, require entering the dark recesses of our brain and switching on the dusty bulb in the ceiling. Just last week, I had to shine some light into the much ignored science recess in my brain to remember three key terms for discussing glass sculptures: translucent, transparent, and opaque.

If you’ve visited us here at FWMoA you’ve probably seen at least one artwork made of glass, perhaps the blown glass Chihuly chandelier that hangs permanently from our ceiling in the atrium. Currently on exhibit is the 47th International Glass Invitational; comprising three galleries, the artists use various processes and techniques to bring their visions to life through their common medium. In fact, Bertil Vallien, one of the artists with a solo exhibition, pioneered the process of sandcasting glass!

Giving student tours through glass art is both fun, because fine art glass is extremely different from functional glass, and terrifying, because glass breaks. As a “No touching” zone, this is ultimately the first thing we talk about when entering glass exhibitions. The second is discussing the physical characteristics, or: What does the glass look like? Is it sparkly or dull? Can we see through it? This is when I have to admit that my science teacher was right, I WILL use these vocabulary words in my everyday life. A great example of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, & Math), these words have both scientific and artistic definitions. The science behind how “see through” an object is, or the interaction of light, is multifaceted because the way that light behaves is dependent on various conditions. The simplified version is that the wavelength of light and the nature of the medium interact through some combination of reflection, absorption, and transmission. This also controls the color of the object! The amount of reflection, absorption, and transmission of light determines the transparency, translucency, or opaqueness of an object. Take a look at the glasswork below. Do you remember your elementary school science class? Is the glasswork transparent, translucent, opaque, or a mixture of the three?

A glass cat and snake. The snake is see-through whereas the cat is opaque.
Caterina Weintraub, American, b. 1957. Mayflowers. Kiln cast and flameworked glass, 2018. Courtesy of Habatat Gallery. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A transparent glasswork means the light passes through the material, in one side and out the other, without being scattered. Clear glass is transparent because the light travels straight through it, we can see through it and make out clearly what is on the other side. Other everyday examples are reading glasses, measuring cups, and goggles. Fun fact: transparent animals, like a jellyfish, allow them to camouflage in their environment. Our snake friend in the first image is transparent, note how you can see the pedestal beneath him but some light is reflected so we can still see the glass.

An abstract, blue glass sculpture. It is flower-like with its central circle and seven petal-like protrusions.
Michael Estes Taylor, American, b. 1944. Rocketeer. Fused glass construction, 2017. Collection of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A translucent glasswork lets some light pass through, but not all of it, so it is scattered as it travels through the work. Semi-transparent, you cannot see directly through a translucent piece as it appears blurry or fuzzy, like glass that is frosted, stained glass, or colored balloons. Examine the piece below. Is it fully translucent? How does the lighting impact the way we view the artwork?

Wilfried Grootens, German, b. 1954. Elliploid2 H30. Painted, laminated, and polished glass, 2017. Courtesy of Habatat Gallery. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

An opaque glasswork is neither transparent nor translucent, so no light is transmitted and instead is reflected, scattered, or absorbed. You cannot see through an opaque artwork. A good example of this is a mirror, a book, or aluminum foil. Fun fact: opaque animals can also camouflage, but they do so through special phores in their skin instead of using light. Does this make their camouflage superior to transparent marine animals? Can we see the wall through the fish?

A realistic, glass sculpture of a fish. Attached to its base by a single wire, it appears the fish is swimming in the air.
Raven Skyriver, Native American, b. 1982. Black Mouth. Hot sculpted glass, 2018. Courtesy of Habatat Gallery. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Pop quiz! Is the cat in the first image transparent, translucent, or opaque? The easiest way to determine the transparency of a glasswork is to ask yourself one question: does it let ALL light through, SOME light through, or NO light through? Artists working with glass have to decide how much light they want to pass through their object. Consider the pieces above, why would the artist who crafted the fish, for example, make it opaque? What does Michael Estes Taylor add to his artworks by making them transparent? And what do the translucent artworks not have that the transparent ones do?

Consider how the lighting plays up each works level of transparency. Are the lights coming from above the work? Below the work? Maybe even from the side? Glass artworks are lit carefully to ensure the reflection, absorption, and transmission of light is correct. Unlike works on paper, that are light sensitive and require darkly lit galleries, glass flourishes underneath the bright lights. So, next time you visit, think about the choices made by the artists and installers: where the work is placed in the exhibition, how it is lit, what other artworks are around it, and how all of those choices ensure each artwork has its moment in the light.

Want to see more? Visit FWMoA now through November 18th, 2019 to view contemporary glass artworks from around the world!

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