Monday, 25 November 2019


Clouds are vital to the imagination. My first imaginative experience of them was as a boy lying on my back in the long grass looking straight up into the sky and getting lost in looking for images as clouds passed over me on a hot summer's day in Dudley. Peering up past long stalks of grass uncoupled the clouds from any reference point beyond the now giant grass stalks that surrounded my head and this allowed my thoughts to drift and take me away from my home town and into somewhere else far more exciting.
A personally very significant cloud moment was watching the film 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' on the TV. This was the film version of Irving Stone's book based on the life of Michelangelo. There was a scene where Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston, looks up at the clouds and sees for the first time a vision of his painted images covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and he now knows what he is going to paint.

Charlton Heston matted into the frame looking at the painted clouds

This is the image of clouds as painted by Emil Kosa jnr.

At the time I hadn't realised how the images were constructed and was convinced that if I looked long enough at the right cloud formation I would find fantastic images of all the things I wanted to draw. This was just about the time it was dawning on me that I wanted to be an artist and this film gave me a very unrealistic Romantic idea of what life as an artist was like but like many untruths, hidden inside was a truth that stuck with me. 


I like the fact that this photograph of a cloud formation was seen by many as Godzilla. It suggested to me that things that are designed to appeal to our imaginations, like Godzilla, are much easier to read than objects based on reality. For instance a real dog is seen in all sorts of positions, but a cartoon dog is nearly always seen from the side. Like the dog, when Heston sees an image of God it is also from the side. 

Dog like cloud

I'm sort of drifting off the point, seeing things in clouds or similar amorphous suggestible things, such as blots and splurges of paint is a type of apophenia, or the tendency to perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things, technically the sub category is 'pareidolia', or a tendency for the incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. Humans that are attuned to see other humans in everything perhaps though need a retuning, so that they see other possibilities in things and take at least one step away from a tendency to see human values as running through all eventualities. (This is an OOO objection, most psychologists would say that it is perfectly normal for people to see other people in random patterns, because that is what they are mainly interested in; which for me is where the root of certain problems might lie).

This tendency to see more than one thing at once is interesting as it creates action within a static image. It forces the mind to constantly question what is there, which is what normally happens when you see something in movement. It takes a few moments for the brain to sort out a collection of percepts. Add into that time of questioning a peculiarity of language, that for instance these percepts indicate that there is a 'rabbit' within the surrounding complexity, and you have a moment whereby 'chaos' is suddenly clarified and 'fixed' by a noun. The doing or perceiving becomes a thought. The drawings above echo that perceptual problem and show the potential of switch between one possibility and another to give energy and 'life' to a still image. 

If you didn't know what rabbit looked like you might miss it

The photographer has already drawn our attention to what is supposed to be interesting in the above image, which brings me to another issue about contemporary lens based culture. By constantly referring to photographic imagery, sometimes I wonder whether or not we are becoming more and more reliant on technologically mediated images and that we now feel more comfortable with these than we do with ones that are the result of confronting the world directly. For instance this shot of a rabbit was chosen because in profile the rabbit is more recognisable, a fact that allows us to pick it out from a very similar coloured and textured background, however the photographer would have chosen this image from several   possibilities, and would have picked out the one that was deemed to be the most clear or understandable by the audience. I.e. the photographer is doing all the work of picking out and defining what is of interest, so all the audience has to do is receive the image. I have worried about this issue before, so will park the thought for now. (But there is no escaping that rabbits, dogs and God have some profiles more recognisable than others)

If you are interested in clouds as a subject matter the artist most people would turn to first of all is John Constable, a man who lived through the period 1776 to1837. 

Constable was very much an artist of his time and was responding to a wider awareness of the romantic nature of landscape, as well as a growing belief in the power of science and objective reasoning. Clouds in particular suggested both something uncontrollable and indefinable and something that could be studied by close observation. Constable at one point below a drawing of clouds quoting Bloomfield’s lines from his poem 'Winter'.

As when retreating tempests we behold,
Whose skirts at length the azure sky unfold,
And full of murmurings and mingled wrath,
Slowly unshroud the smiling face of earth,
Bringing the bosom joy: so WINTER flies!...
And see the Source of Life and Light uprise!
A height'ning arch o'er southern hills he bends;
Warm on the cheek the slanting beam descends,
And gives the reeking mead a brighter hue,

Constable: A sunbeam descending through clouds

Nature is seen as a place of drama and romantic thrill, and in some ways an extension of the human, tempests have skirts, and murmur and the earth is un-shrouded, revealing its smiling face. So it could be argued that Constable was looking for other things in his cloud studies, things suggestive of human temperament as well as meteorological exactness. 
His tiny sketchbook studies are a lesson to us all in brevity and a reminder that when trying to make notes a conjunction of words and images is sometimes better that just one or the other. 

Constable cloud studies

Constable used the word 'skying' to describe this practice of drawing clouds, as in, ‘I have done a good deal of skying’. A description I would suggest links him to a phrase from our own times, 'blue sky thinking'. 

It is illuminating to compare Constable with Cozens, an artist I have referred to before

Cozens: cloud studies

Cozens was interested in how to turn the process of capturing cloud forms into something that could be a marketable teaching aid. His 'how to do it' approach reminding us that Capitalism was becoming the dominant economic force in England during this period. Cozens had already realised that ink blots and paint splodges could be used as marketable tools that could help the amateur painter come up with new ideas, the idea of the amateur being something that was also at the time new; like hobbies, these were activities only available to those rich enough and with spare time on their hands. 

Cozens: ‘A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape’ 1785

This was a time when workers were being forced to sell their labour in an increasingly competitive urban environment; because people who traditionally had made their living from the land in agricultural trades, were increasingly being dispossessed of their traditional cottages and rural homes, as land owners turned to new industrial means of production and removed no longer needed people from their lands. The powers that ruled wanted a disciplined obedient class of wage workers who would work for a pittance, and the idea that everything could be turned into a commodity had become more and more entrenched as a model idea. The problem of creating a disciplined and regimented workforce was though difficult. After living in the countryside and leading a life led by responding to the various changes in the conditions of nature, submitting to the routine of going to work daily, for a set number of hours, usually inside a dark noisy building, was an alien concept. The working day under a pre-capitalist agrarian system would have been shaped by hours of light and darkness, as most work took place out of doors. The intensity and length of labour being dictated by seasonal considerations, such as planting or harvest periods and the sky was the main indicator of these things. 
Here for me lies the paradox. As people were driven off the land, city living becomes the norm and the new industrial class of owners and managers become the people that can afford to buy Constable's paintings and who can take up Cozen's courses in art. Understanding the sky moves from being something everyone could do, to a specialist preoccupation only followed by artists and scientists. At the same time that Constable's 'Hay Wain' was receiving plaudits from the Parisian art critics, agricultural workers were being driven into the city only to find themselves homeless and starving because their skills (such as being attuned to the different cloud patterns and the weathers they foretold), were no longer needed. 
I have to be careful as I write because as the words emerge, like a drawing, what I find myself saying wasn't what I started off thinking about. But this economic divide does worry me because it still exists and fine art is often seen as only for the well heeled collector. 

So what use are these clouds? The fact that their forms are in constant metamorphosis is a wonderful stimulant for invention. At the core of image making is the fact that you don't know what you are going to do when you start. The reason you leave a drawing unfinished and in an amorphous state, is to let your unconscious take over. At some point all drawings on their way to becoming something pass through a 'cloud' of unknowing stage and that is why clouds are so important to our collective artistic imagination. This 'inventiveness' is useful for anyone, not just artists and is an essential part of how we respond to the rest of the world and accept the serendipity of interconnectedness. Clouds are also things that are 'undomesticated', they are nature at play and suggest a world other than the built forms that humans come up with. The more we live indoors, the more time spent typing on computers in dark rooms, the more clouds become a symbol for imaginative escape. Back in 1802, (click here) Luke Howard's 'Essay on the modification of clouds' had an enormous influence and created an appetite amongst the educated classes for images of clouds. In a similar way we can download from the Internet the latest advances in science and go beyond the clouds, out into space or down into the spaces of the quantum universe. However even in these 'sublime' territories Romantic clouds still exist. Images from the Large Magellanic Cloud and cloud chambers now inhabiting our visual vocabularies just as powerfully as storm clouds did in the romantic visions of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Large Magellanic gas clouds 

Cloud chamber trajectories 

I've used cloud images myself in several different ways, sometimes as in the ceramic versions below to reverse expectations, in this case making light airy insubstantial things out of an earthy solid clay material and exhibiting them on the ground, so that they resemble coprolites. 

Ceramic clouds


In the two watercolour images below I used clouds as a device to obscure what would have been central to the image, as if those clouds that stopped you looking at the earth from your passenger plane window, had begun to follow you around and to always get in the way of your ability to see the world for what it is. 

Clouds as obscuring devices

Clouds are always with us and are fundamental to our visual vocabulary; different cultures will return to them over and over again, but each time with perhaps a slightly different intent.

Xia GUI: Mountain Market, Clouds, Clearing Mist (1127–1279)

Cory Arcangel: Super Mario Clouds

Gal Weinstein: ‘el al’, 2017, acrilan, styrofoam, graphite, felt and steel wool

Stains and blots Monoprint as a way of stimulating ideas
Seeing things for the first time
Clouds in the drawings of Patrick Hall
Drawing water
Drawing water part two

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