Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"TRANSLUMINOUS" – The Magical Nexus of Reflective and Projective Light

All the colors we perceive are about light. Where it originates, its hue, how bright it is, whether it’s absorbed, filtered, reflected or refracted.

Compounding those variables, there are two distinct color-blending modes: subtractive and additive.

With subtractive color the “canvas” starts out white, which, contrary to most people’s belief, comprises all colors. Adding filters to that white—like printer’s inks or natural pigments—removes some of the color spectrum. The remaining colors are what we perceive. Filtering out all the colors makes black.

Additive color works the other way around. The “canvas” is black, essentially colorless. Adding colors of light creates the hues we see. (Theoretically, flooding the surface with all colors of light will turn it white.) This is how we perceive color on our TV and computer screens, and in other displays where light is projected, like stage lighting.   

Another factor: I learned early in my career as a graphic designer (in those days, that job focused primarily on printed materials) the distinction between reflective color and transparent color.

Think of the difference between an image seen as a photo print on paper, and the same image in slide form observed through a lighted slide viewer. The transparency image is generally both brighter and sharper. So, before digital photography caught on, that was the original artwork of choice to be scanned for fine printing.

Finally, for reflective art, there’s the element of surface. Does the color we see have a flat, or matte, finish, or is it glossy? This can also affect how we perceive color.

In conventional printing, finish, along with the absorbency of the paper, determines the sharpness and “depth” of a reproduced image. This is why printing of photography and fine art is nearly always done on glossy and/or enamel-coated stock.

      The light not only shines through them;
      it seems to originate in them.

So what does all this have to do with Nature? I started thinking about it when I noticed how the orange fibrous begonia flowers on our deck seem to glow with a special quality that our other flowers lack.

A few feet away from the begonias, petals of our purple petunias are definitely translucent. Light bounces off of them. A little light shines through them. But they’re not luminous.

These begonia petals look both translucent and luminous. The light not only reflects from them and shines through them, it seems to originate in them.

No wonder fibrous begonias are also called wax begonias. It suggests that rare color quality I describe as “transluminous,” the result of a “perfect storm” of color-enhancing elements.

    Isn’t something like this same luminousness
    also why young, healthy human skin glows
    the way it does?

First of all, they seem to employ both additive and subtractive color at the same time. Sunlight reflects off each petal’s surface, and it also penetrates it from behind to give it that luminous quality our other flowers lack.

In addition, begonia petals have a unique, velvety surface, one whose capacity to diffuse reflected light somehow intensifies it—in much the same way that printing on enamel-coated paper intensifies ink colors. 

These waxy-bright, luminous colors don’t just startle the eye, they somehow manage to overwhelm the sensor in my point-and-shoot camera. Their brilliance tends to “blow out” much of the image’s contrast, destroying subtle details of light and shadow. The eye can’t make out where one petal ends and the one behind it starts.

Isn’t this the same kind of luminousness that makes young, healthy human skin glow the way it does, and why all but the very greatest painters struggle to capture it? (And perhaps why wax sculptures of people are so eerily realistic compared with those of bronze or marble?)

What other small wonders of Nature embody these tricks of color and light? Examples of simple translucence are pretty easy to find: autumn leaves, clouds, fish fins, butterfly wings, feathers, mica, fingernails…

Far fewer natural things glow like these begonia petals: both translucent and luminous. Transluminous. That magical quality of not just reflecting light, but seeming to generate their own. Morning glory flowers look like that to me. So do some sugar maple trees in the fall, looking sunlit even on cloudy days.

Also some jellyfish, especially those that phosphoresce. (Okay, maybe that’s not fair, since they actually do have their own light source.). Another is glacial ice, with its arresting sky blue glow.

And eyes. Don’t some people’s just seem illuminated from within?

Can you think of others? We’d love to hear about them in “Comments.”


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