Skies

Skies by Jeannine Cook

After the many glorious days of cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine, today was cloudy and grey. A bit of a shock, in a way. The change in the light and the sense of space was marked.

Skies, for an artist involved in any depiction of the natural world, are so important. Their role in setting a tone, a mood in any painting or drawing, is key. As a child of Africa, where the vast skies arch brilliant and endless, I love the wide vistas across the salt water mashes of coastal Georgia because here too, the sky is so expansive. Such views allow a sense of liberty, an expansiveness of soul that are allied to a sense of the infinite vastness of nature, of space and those countless galaxies far beyond our world. All these feelings are often filtered through the art one creates, in spite of oneself. In essence, it is "painting about something", versus "painting something". Whether the something is the light, the space, or much more complex philosophical concepts, the sky is central to the art making.

The painting below is the famed Deadham Vale 1802 depiction of rural England, where Constable used the sky to set the whole tone of the landscape, to flood it with northern light and give it a gentle expansiveness that is memorable.

Dedham Vale with Ploughman, 1814, John Constable, (Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery)

Dedham Vale with Ploughman, 1814, John Constable, (Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery)

John Constable RA, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 1821. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

John Constable RA, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 1821. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

John Constable believed that the sky was "the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment" in a landscape painting. This 1821 Cloud Study, (above) a plein air study, is an example of his famed quick art done to record skies and weather conditions.

Despite the ever-increasing divorce between man and nature that we are witnessing today, there are still many artists who are enthralled - nay, obsessed - by skies and the wonders of light, clouds and atmospheric effects.  Graham Nickson, the British-American artist who is Dean at the New York Studio School since 1988, had a wonderful exhibition at the Jill Newhouse Gallery in 2009, entitled "Italian Skies".

Graham Nickson  , Sarageto III , 2008 (Image courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Graham Nickson, Sarageto III, 2008 (Image courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Jeffrey Lewis, who teaches are at Auburn University. He works in encaustic, and his series of paintings are lyrical in the extreme.

Towards Ontario mirus caelum, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario mirus caelum, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario Vespers, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario Vespers, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

He speaks eloquently about the emotions that these skies inspire in him and what he seeks to convey in his paintings.

Towards Ontario Eventide, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the Artist)

Towards Ontario Eventide, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the Artist)

Photography too is a wonderful medium to celebrate skies, the light that emanates from them, and thus also the passage of time. One artist who has devoted much of her life to exploration of these subjects is Erika Blumenfeld, a Guggenheim Fellow and photographer. She discourses at length about such research and work in a recent fascinating interview with Art Interview, and clearly shares the same deep awareness of skies and their influence on all of us below their domes.

Background - Sky Scrolls, Erika Blumenfeld photographer (Image courtesy of the artist)

Background - Sky Scrolls, Erika Blumenfeld photographer (Image courtesy of the artist)

More on "Artists' Eyes on the Skies" by Jeannine Cook

I heard a fascinating addendum to my blog entry of June 7th about artwork helping to unravel meteorologist mysteries of the past on NPR today. With the title, "Scientists pinpoint Monet's Balcony", host Guy Raz interviewed John Thornes, Professor of Applied Meteorology at Birmingham University.

Like other scientists looking at artists' work to learn of past weather conditions and other situations, John Thornes has been studying Claude Monet's paintings which he did in London in the winters of 1899-1901. These famous paintings of Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges and along the Thames to the Houses of Parliament - 95 images in total - were painted from the balcony of his rooms at the Savoy Hotel. As Monet did so often, he worked on different canvases as the light moved. He apparently used the morning light to depict Waterloo Bridge, the midday hours to paint the Charing Cross Bridge and ended his busy days capturing the sunsets along the river towards the Houses of Parliament.

Impression, Sunrise  ,  1872, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, (Image courtesy of the Musee Marmottan)

Impression, Sunrise,  1872, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, (Image courtesy of the Musee Marmottan)

Professor Thornes and his team used solar geometry and historical weather data to determine exactly which balconies of the Savoy had become Monet's painting sites, based on the sunlight that Monet painted in each canvas. Monet, like many other artists, was amazingly accurate in his representation of the prevailing weather, so the visual coloured record of wintertime London is also one of the famous "pea souper" conditions that prevailed for so long in the smoky, foggy city. Monet, in fact, damaged his health by exposure to all that pollution, even though he apparently considered all the smog as an "envelope" between him and the scenery.

Clearly scientists have a rich resource to mine in artists' observations of the skies and world around them. For John Thornes, for example, the next of Monet's paintings to be examined for meteorological information is his Impression, Sunrise, the canvas painted at Le Havre that purportedly gave rise to the name of Impressionism. It must be a thrill to combine one's passions for art and science in these sleuthing ventures.

Artists' Eyes on the Skies by Jeannine Cook

I am sitting on a hotel terrace in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Ontario. A rainy day has yielded to golden light and jewel-like sparkles in the water in the early evening, with hours of light still remaining - in these northern climes. The River is sprinkled with small islands, mostly crowned with a cluster of trees, which are ebulliently vivid in their variety of greens above the ochres and greys of the granite rock shorelines. Limpid reflections shimmer on smooth waters. Above, osprey hover and dive, while great blue heron wing purposefully west above the pine tree crowns on the distant shore.

I have been watching this wonderful parade of light and magic because I have my artist's eye turned on. I keep analysing the scene in terms of how to depict what I see. I don't mean literally, in terms of representation, necessarily, because I am always "pruning" and editing the scene I am looking at, trying to select the most relevant details. Nevertheless, at the back of my head, I am aware that the veracity of a painting of drawing is underlined by the references, direct or indirect, to the climate, the light, the prevalent weather ... In the days that I have spent here, the light has been amazingly varied but always wonderful and very northern and cool, compared to the light of coastal Georgia or the Mediterranean.

Artistic fidelity to weather and atmospheric phenomena has proven useful on occasions. I have read that meteorologists have consulted paintings done in previous centuries to confirm weather events, volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and more. We were all recently reminded about the amazing sunsets caused by volcanic ash. I heard Simon Winchester talking on PBS about the insights into wind patterns circling the globe that were obtained from paintings done around the world by artists enthralled by the sunsets drama caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.

Constable's drawings and paintings of clouds and related weather in 18th/19th century England have also yielded good science, thanks to their accuracy. He spent many an hour studying clouds and drawing them in their fugitive glory. I felt considerable empathy with him when I was Artist in Residence in Brittany in autumn, 2008, because there, too, the weather is never the same for more than half an hour!

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

Seascape Study, Boat and Stormy Sky, 1824, John  Constable  (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)


Another benefit of artistic fidelity to weather conditions was written about by Dan Falk, an environmental journalist writing on June 6th, 2010, in the Toronto Star. A Canadian artist, Gustav Hahn (1866-1962), depicted a west Toronto neighbourhood in the winter of 1913. Above, the night sky shows the constellation, Orion, and also a bright series of objects streaking across the sky. Hahn, also an amateur astronomer, was recording the famous Canadian Fireball Procession of 1913, a very rare event when meteors graze the earth's atmosphere at a very low angle and break up into glowing fragments. This painting yielded all sorts of insights for Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University, who is known as the world's leading "forensic astronomer". He mines classic works of literature and art for references to our universe - the moon, the stars and the sun - and calculates where and when each piece of art was created. For example, Olson has calculated the exact spot and time when Van Gogh painted Moonrise: 9.08 p.m. on July 13th, 1889. Another piece of art that became important in Olson's studies was a painting by Hudson River School artist, Frederic Church, entitled The Meteor of 1860, showing a peaceful late evening river scene, with a brilliant array of meteors streaking across the sky on an almost horizontal trajectory. Olson later deduced that Walt Whitman, in New York, had witnessed and then written of the same event in one of his poems. Both conclusions were buttressed by his having seen a copy of Hahn's painting of a meteor procession. Olson's analysis is appearing in the July issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).

Painting of The Meteor of 1860 by Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. (Credit: Frederic Church courtesy of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt).


Without the keen watch that artists keep on the skies above, we would all lose a lot of fascinating information.

Patterns that have implications by Jeannine Cook

Well! I blogged about patterns yesterday, but nature is supplying the basis for some patterns that I - and countless other air travellers - could do without. The Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name is supplying Spain with its own art form of patterns.

Icelandic volcano eruption, (Image courtesy of Imgur: The magic of the Internet)

Icelandic volcano eruption, (Image courtesy of Imgur: The magic of the Internet)

How about tomorrow's predictions, courtesy of the British Met Office's Volcano Ash Advisory Centres? The airports are juggling flights, and I have already had one flight to Spain cancelled, so the patterns made by volcanic ash drifting who knows where are of considerable interest! El Pais, the Spanish daily newspaper, is full of lovely designs, none of which bring much comfort. Perhaps I had better find another type of subject about which to write in the art world. I seem to have been inviting the fates with the choice of patterns as a topic!

Patterns by Jeannine Cook

In my previous post about William Herschel, I mentioned that his ability to scan the night sky was helped by his knowledge and familiarity with music and more especially with sight-reading. Underpinning both skills was the honed ability to recognise patterns, and thus note any difference in those patterns, especially in the stellar nebulae.

In the same way, patterns are frequently a very important part of art-making. Nature is full of such examples, from alto-cirrus clouds to ripples on the water, from a millipede's many footprints in the sand to the distinctive feathering on a bird that flashes from tree to tree.

Tree bark offers a magical multitude of patterns, each distinctive to the tree species. The silverpoint, watercolour and sequins I used to depict The Life Within seemed appropriate for the live oak bark I picked up on a walk one day. Shaped by wind and rain, sun and shade, the tree's bark is a wonderful indication of the energy and resilience of that tree.

The Life Within, silverpoint, watercolour, sequins, Jeannine Cook artist

The Life Within, silverpoint, watercolour, sequins, Jeannine Cook artist

A walk along any beach yields countless examples of nature's patterns in shells. This silverpoint I did of an Angel Wing came from Sapelo Island. Its patterns show how nature reinforces the delicate shell to withstand the sea's relentless tossing and pounding. For an artist, it is endless fascination and a considerable challenge to draw!

Angel Wing shell, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Angel Wing shell, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Patterns play a huge role in many approaches to art. One type of work that I have always found powerful is Australian aboriginal art , in which their visual and Dreaming worlds are united. Patterns reach an apogee of complexity, beauty and subtlety in these paintings. . Dots, dashes, stripes - they become the ultimate collection of patterns, even though they are in truth symbols of their sacred Dreaming world. This is especially the case with the art produced from 1972 onwards in the North West Territory at Papunya, when the tribal elders began to paint on Masonite and later canvas, rather than on rock faces and sand, as they had done for the last 20,000 years.

MAWALAN MARIKA, Sydney from the Air, 1963, National Museum of Australia.

MAWALAN MARIKA, Sydney from the Air, 1963, National Museum of Australia.

Another version of patterns in art was sent to me the other day by a fellow silverpoint

and graphite artist, Cynthia Lin, . It was the announcement of a current collective exhibition, Observant, at New York's  ISE Cultural Foundation, in which her large-scale graphite drawings of skin are featured. This is one of her works, entitled Crop3 DSnosemouth (detail), 2008, graphite on paper, 66 x 71".

Whether realistic or abstracted, patterns are the underpinnings of most art. It is fun to observe nature's patterns and even more fun to incorporate them in art.