Refractive Relief Sculpture


Refractive relief sculpture is a technique in glass sculpture developed by the artist. It is similar to conventional relief sculpture in that its surface is contoured. Unlike most opaque sculpture, however, the visible surface is of secondary importance. The image of interest is that created by the refraction of light passing through the glass. The artist is painting with refraction and using the colors in ambient backlighting as his palette. The sculptural characteristic is merely a consequence of having to shape the surface in order to bend the transmitted light.

The refractive relief sculpture is actually a stack of many long rectangular pieces of float glass, each piece having a curvilinear cut along one edge. Background light viewed through this stack of glass, which acts like a complex lens, is shaped into an image. Light is further transformed by internal reflections. The result is a dynamic image, responding to changes in lighting conditions and viewer position. The artist's designs range from representational to abstract. With the dynamic element, the level of abstraction is determined not only by design, but also by viewing conditions.

Designs fall into two categories: hand drawn and mathematically defined.

Hand-Drawn Example: Circumspectus









The design begins with a drawing in which the objects are simplified, exaggerated, or abstracted.   Next, a contour study is performed, leading to the drawing up of templates used to cut individual pieces of float glass.

  Narrow pieces of float glass are cut by hand and stacked in a steel frame. Shown left are: stacks of glass 'blanks,' one piece of glass with a curvilinear cut, a glass cutter, and a completed sculpture.

The closeup (right) shows a partially-filled steel frame (for a different sculpture). Note the curvilinear cuts along one edge of each piece of glass.


The sculpture is shown backlit with two different black and white gradients (right). This lighting technique reveals a great amount of detail in the glass design.

KEN LEAP, Circumspectus, limited edition. Glass, steel,
16" x 16" x 6".
  The sculpture (left) was photographed outdoors. Only a concrete driveway is directly behind the glass along the line of sight. Optical characteristics of the glass stack introduce additional colors, including blue from the sky overhead and green from trees across the street. Internal reflections off of the horizontal glass surfaces and refractrion of transmitted light due to the curvilinear cuts bring this palette to the viewer's eye in the form of an image. Changes in viewing angle create different color mixes.


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