The Weird Optics of Glass

Newberry, Glass Vase with Chocolate Boxes, 2003, Pastel on Black Paper


The glass optic is very surreal, yet, it is before us as a real tangible thing, and we see it several times a day, everyday. Glass is both a solid and transparent, but not completely invisible. Reflections of things bounce off the contours of the glass, if the glass is curved it gives a distorted hall of mirrors illusion. In a strange way the study of glass is a metaphor for a therapist working with a psychotic patient, slowly examining all the twists and turns, trying to discover the causes of their distortions.

The glass will reflect everything around it, but because it is transparent it reflects most strongly the things behind it. In contrast a metal vase would reflect everything in front and to the side of it, but obviously not what is behind it.

The curved glass is also a joker that plays with our vision, you can see the stuff behind the glass and you know with certainty that those things “are back there.” Yet if you reach out to touch the glass your finger touches the part closest to you, the glass becomes a concrete blocking the advancement of your finger through it. So how does an artist solve this riddle?

On a drawing or painting surface, colors and tones vibrate. Depending on the context of the vibrations , they will feel like they reside in a particular location in the 3d space. For instance the blind slats in the my pastel are “back there,” and the bottom right corner is “in our face.” (The black touches help pop the fabric forward.) When it comes to the glass these vibrations “sit” on the form of the glass closest to us. We will see a highlight that delineates the back portion of the glass, but its vibration jumps forward to rest on the front surface — it simultaneously defines the back, yet pops forward. I love teaching this!

Michael Newberry, Idyllwild, 9/13/2020

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