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Monday, September 15, 2014

Painting Clouds

The Cloud, 1901, Arthur Hacker
Women with Umbrella, 1875,
Claude Monet
Ever since I was a kid I've always enjoyed looking up at big, fluffy, cumulus clouds trying to imagine various human or animal shapes, watching them morph into other shapes, or simply drift by to be replaced by new shapes like an endless Disney parade. Most people have probably done that at one time or another. Never however, even in my wildest imaginative binge, did I ever imagine anything as fantasmagorical or erotic as Arthur Hacker's The Cloud (above). In any case, such daydreams were about the only time I've ever "studied" clouds. Only when faced with the prospect of a painting having a large, uninteresting sky a few years ago, had I ever thought much about painting clouds. It's only then that I realize too, how few clouds I've ever painted and the fact that I really don't know how to paint clouds, at least not in the sense of John Constable (below), Jacob van Ruisdael, or Claude Monet (right). 

Cloud Study, 1822, John Constable, often considered the grand master of clouds.
Oh, I can paint a reasonably authentic, atmospheric blue sky and then streak and daub in some titanium white, swirl it a bit, and call what I get clouds, but that's little more than "decorating" the sky. In one case, frustrated by my meager efforts, I hit the Internet looking for clouds. Needless to say, it's pretty cloudy on the Internet. But what I found was either way too much, or simply as boring as what I could do just by playing around with the paint. Photographers like to shoot the unusual, yet if an artist paints the unusual, the sky will simply take over the entire landscape, stealing the show from whatever lies below. Moreover, unbelievably beautiful cloud photos translate to the simply unbelievable when painted. I seldom paint landscapes for their own sake so when I want clouds in order to add a little interest to the sky, I have to be careful they don't become too interesting. 

Cypress Trees Clouds Hills, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
Clouds, Rene Magritte.
There have been quite a number of outstanding artist who have become especially known for having their "heads in the clouds." I mentioned three above. I could also add Vincent van Gogh, who seems to almost "frolick" with his clouds in the sky as seen in his 1889 Cypress Trees Clouds Hills (above). Tradition contends that Michelangelo derived the inspiration for his famous ceiling by imagining various scenes from Genesis in a clouded sky--the "ceiling" of the earth, the gateway to Heaven. Rene Magritte (left) used clouds repeatedly in his Surrealist paintings, though usually in a symbolic sense, rather than any attempt at naturalism. Indeed, any number of 20th century artists took great liberties in painting clouds for their many meanings, real or imagined, rather than their appearance.

The Seine at Saint Cloud, 1877, Alfred Sisley
As a painter of realism, what little attention I've paid to painting clouds has been more technical than symbolic, with special emphasis on form and color. Form tends to be relatively simple inasmuch as clouds come in any and all shapes, though usually flatter on the bottom than toward the top. Because of the rules involving light and shadow, they are often darker toward their lower extremities except when the light falls behind the clouds as in a sunset/sunrise, in which all bets are off. Virtually anything can happen (bottom). Color, however, is another matter. Amateur painters tend to think of clouds as some combination of white or gray, which is fine if you're satisfied with "shorthand" clouds, but way oversimplified in terms of the real essence of cloud painting. I've seen realistic paintings with clouds utilizing just about every color in the rainbow, which is more than just a figure of speech inasmuch as both have similar optical origins. Notice the impressionist color Alfred Sisley employed in his heavily clouded The Seine at Saint Cloud, from 1877. There are some blues and whites, but gray (bitumen black) was considered an anathema to impressionists, seeing as how they had a whole palette of much more beautiful colors that could be made to work just as well.

Wheat Fields, ca. 1670, Jacob van Ruisdael
The Impressionists caused artists to see landscapes differently, especially clouds. Impressionism flew in the face of everything artists had ever come to assume about painting nature and that which hung above it, influencing the colors below. Local color was replaced by ambient color. Grass was no longer green but some combination of blue, yellow, or even more distant color relationships. Color was translated as light waves striking the eyes rather than pigment on canvas. To understand this break from the past we need only look at the work of Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael. Quite the exact opposite Sisley's or Monet's cloudy visions were those of van Ruisdael as seen in his Wheat Fields (above) from around 1670. Though quite striking in their complex enormity (they, in fact, completely dominate the painting), the old black-and-white-makes-gray formula prevailed. Even Constable, a hundred years later, was only beginning to see the color possibilities inherent in clouds. Yet color can be an extremely powerful force in painting. Never is this more the case than with the old landscape staple, the clouded sunrise (or sunset). As I suggested before, in painting such works, there are few rules (as seen below). Maybe there should be some though.

Clouds with color run amok.


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