WEEK 7: Sea Glass

Glass is fragile.  I have accidentally broken more of it than I can remember.  Jagged pieces discarded and forgotten.

Glass distorts and reflects.  It bends reality like dreams bend consciousness with mysterious and sometimes haunting effects.

Glass is transparent.  I know it has mass but I can see inside it and through it.

Glass is durable.  Apart from mechanical stress there are only a few factors that damage it.

Glass is complicated.

Watercolor is the perfect medium to render a painting of transparent glass because watercolor itself has transparent mystery.  The pigment can be watered down to almost nothing.

In this class, we explored drawing and then painting a rendition of a transparent glass object.  The journey was as delicate and complicated as the glass itself.

We all brought in transparent glass objects from home.  Mrs. C set them up in the middle of the classroom in a “still life” set-up.  We picked 1-3 objects to create our composition, did 2-3 thumbnail sketches, and then a final structural sketch blocking in the shapes of the objects.

The original glass vase still life.

The original glass vase still life.

We learned very quickly that painting transparent objects can be a many-faceted process.  How could we depict the form of the object while still allowing it to appear transparent?

Working from last week’s monochromatic value studies, we used a basic nine-value scale, using 0-1 for highlights and 8-9 for darkness of the thick areas.


My partially finished painting (before removing the masking fluid) with the still life in the background.

It was easy to forget that glass has thickness and that even transparent objects have shadows.  After starting the basic drawing, the highlights and reflections had to be “masked” with special masking fluid so these areas stayed white.  The negative space around the object was painted next with a light “wash.” After drying, a second wash was applied using warm vs. cool colors to depict foreground, background, cast shadows and light sources.

A lighter wash was used to paint the tone of the glass itself.  After drying, another layer of distortion was painted with slightly darker colors.  Layers were built up until some of the colors were in the 8-9 value scale.

After everything dried, the masking was removed and a light wash was applied over the reflections on the shadow side.  Additional highlights and lowlights were added to some of the previously masked areas to accentuate the value variations.

As I progressed through my painting I had the step-by-step instructions next to me.  They were much more detailed than what I have described here.  But halfway through I said to myself, “This ain’t no paint-by-number kit.”  I could follow the steps 24/7 for the rest of my life and still not be able to transform a single glass vase on a purple cloth backdrop into the kind of art I wanted to create.

Halfway through, my over-thinking and instruction-processing ceased.  Halfway through, my heart opened.

Two things surprised me about the end result.  First, I had completed a painting in a couple of hours, and second, it actually looked like glass.

The completed painting.

The completed painting.


Detail of the light and dark highlights painted in the previously masked areas.

Detail of the light and dark highlights painted in the previously masked areas.

Humbled by the complexity of the simple, single transparent vase, I carefully packed up my supplies one by one.

I don’t remember walking to my car.  That happens a lot after painting.  It takes a while for my consciousness to get back in sync with reality.  I paused before heading home, mindlessly popping in The White Stripes CD, “Under Great White Northern Lights,” and gliding out of the darkened parking garage without further thought.

While stopped at a red light, I glanced at the painting on the seat next to me (I had left it there to dry) and I began to cry.

I don’t know if it was the bagpipe performance in The White Stripes’ live recordings reminding me of my dad’s painfully recent funeral, or if it was the painting itself, but something had broken open in me.  I don’t mean broken.  I mean broken open.  There is a difference.

That vase looked sturdy.  But if I had dropped it on the hard floor with enough force, or if I had hurled another object towards it with enough velocity, it would have broken into jagged pieces.

What happens to those pieces from that point forward matters.  Some pieces might cut someone.  Some pieces might be trashed and buried in a nameless junk pile.  Some pieces might make their way to the sea.  And there, as the raw glass is broken into smaller pieces and slowly polished by the turbulence of sand and surf, it transforms into sea glass.  Each piece may be a fraction if its former self but the weathering over the years gives it a rustic smoothness with which we identify.

It is because the vase is fragile that we find it beautiful. It is because, once broken open, its pieces can become as mystifying as the whole.

I remember a few years ago while driving to a dinner/movie date with my boyfriend, I asked him what quality of mine surprised him the most.  We’d been friends for years before becoming a couple.  He already knew me as one would know a friend, but I was curious if he saw something more in me now.  Without hesitation he said, “I never knew you were such a softy.”

It’s true.  I cry at movies, while reading books and poetry, while listening to music sung in languages I don’t understand, and even sometimes while watching dance performances.  During season 9 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” dancer Hampton Williams performed his unique freestyle “exorcist” style of dance to Evanescence’s “My Immortal” during his audition.  At the end he mimes taking his heart out of his chest and offers it up to the audience.  I still cannot watch it without crying.

The more fragile we realize ourselves to be, the better our art becomes.  Each crack in the glass gets us a little closer to breaking open.

I’ve survived numerous chronic health conditions, highly dysfunctional work situations, an abusive marriage, the recent suicide of my father, and yet I feel less broken now than I did twenty years ago. More broken open, yes, but less broken.

A weathered piece of sea glass.  Still whole but now humbled by the memory that I am a unique part of larger and more fragile structure.


“Trash to Treasure”

Once thrown out


Without thought

This piece of seaglass

Began its journey as a reject

Day in day out

It ebbed and flowed

With the tides

Abraded by the sand

Tumbled with the pebbles

Until it was transformed

Completely made smooth by its journey

A magical, mystical & turbulent ride

Created a gem of the sea

Treasured now for its uniqueness and rarity

This glorious process

Reminds us of our own journey

All of us at one time or another

Feels worthless and alone

Tossed about not knowing our course

and yet if we rise with the tides of life

allowing our experiences to smooth out

our jagged edges

we too will discover our uniqueness

and become the treasure we were meant to be

~Sonia Turner “The Seaglass Queen”


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