Many years ago, my late wife bought me a copy of A Book of Clouds, published in 1925 by author William A. Quayle. It is a hefty clothbound volume, primarily of old black-and-white photographs of clouds, layered with Quayle’s particular garish encomia and reminiscence about the glories of skywatching.
Clouds seem to bring out the gooey and poeticizing cliches in a writer. “I was kinsman of the clouds,” Quayle writes. “And as I grew, the clouds still sailed their crafts of snowy sail across the blue sea of my heart. Clouds, so to say, were indigenous to my soul. I did not begin to notice them: I always noticed them. I did not learn to love them: I always loved them.”
The book is fervid with such expostulations: “When clouds give reports of portentous skies, of prepending tempests, when they are black as pools of midnight water, their eminences wrinkled as if zigzag lightnings had been the shears which cut their patterns, then as the sun lurches behind their darkness, the fine fire that rims them and seizes all their peaks gives a touch of delirium to the soul.”
I love this book, for all its gushy writing, because Carole gave it to me, and because, in an era of irony and unbelief, there is something utterly sincere under the purple prose.
A few years later, she gave me another book, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a small volume and kind of a field guide to cloud identification — almost a Peterson guide. In it, Pretor-Pinney gives genus and species names of various formations, implying that a taxonomy of anything as gaseous and impermanent as a cloud might be spoken of almost as if it were a wildflower or a bunting.
And so, there are is a list of Latinate names, not just the familiar “cumulus” and “cirrus,” but also “lenticularis,” “castellanus,” “radiatus,” and “undulatus.” Carl von Linné would have been proud. Each page is devoted to another cloud form, or cloud-related or -adjacent subjects: “pileus,” “virga,” “nacreous,” “noctilucent,” etc. It’s lots of fun.
Pretor-Pinney, it turns out, is a veritable cheerleader for cloud watching. His full name is Gavin Edmund Pretor-Pinney, son of Anthony Robert Edmund Pretor-Pinney and Laura Uppercu, daughter of George Winthrop Haight — in other words, he’s British and has the “twitcher’s” enthusiasm, but for clouds rather than finches. And in 2004, he founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and two years later, wrote both The Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Cloudspotter’s Guide. In 2019, he wrote A Cloud A Day, which features 365 cloud images accompanied with a short piece of cloud science, an inspiring sky quotation or a detail of the sky depicted in a classic painting.
The Society has its website (link here) and features galleries of cloud art by painter-members, collections of cloud poetry, and many, many photographs. The paintings are especially entertaining, and hugely varied in approach.
Artists L-R — Top: Peter Nisbet; Carol McCumber; Elizabeth Busey. Bottom: Judy Friesem; Jethro Buck; Barbara Miller.
And there is a Cloud Appreciation Manifesto (of course, there is):
“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.
“We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day. We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance. We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.
“And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”
Of course, Pretor-Pinney isn’t alone.
There are loads of books, including a raft of children’s books, all about clouds.
The sky is a slate upon which we can project our sense of beauty, our sense of meaning, the expanse of creation, and the progress of time. We look up and always, it is new. Always it is moving. To rephrase Heraclitus, you can never look at the same sky twice.
And the sky has been there in painting for centuries, but usually as a background for more important goings-on in the foreground. Then, in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries several artists began studying the clouds and the sky for its own sake.
Most famously, a series of cloud studies by John Constable and sketches by Alexander Cozens.
“Clouds, for Constable, were a source of feeling and perception, an ‘Organ of sentiment’ (heart or lungs) as much as meteorological phenomena,” writes author Mary Jacobus in the book Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. “If painting is another name for feeling, and the sky an organ of sentiment, then his cloud sketches are less a notation of changing weather effects than a series of Romantic lyrics: exhalations and exclamations, meditations and reflections, attached to a specific location and moment in time.”
In other words, the clouds, either painted or merely watched, become a subject for contemplation, even meditation. Beginning in the 20th century, paintings became increasingly abstract and the point being not subject matter but the substance of paint — color, shape, line, form, design. To look at a Jackson Pollock painting, or one by Mark Rothko, you are asked not to name a subject matter, but to relate the canvas to human affect, i.e., what does the painting make you feel?
A number of artists and photographers have turned to clouds to make images that are both abstract and descriptive. The clouds themselves provide the abstraction.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz made a tremendous series of images of clouds, which he titled, “Equivalents,” meaning that the visual was an equivalent of the emotion.
He made more than 200 such images, with the intent that they could express emotions, much as music can, purely by abstraction. They are images of actual clouds, but they are also shapes on a piece of photographic paper. You can see them as photographs of the sky, or as pure abstractions. Either way, for Stieglitz, the important part was that an emotion be evoked.
Another photographer, Edward Weston made pictures of clouds through his lifetime, less consciously manipulated than Stieglitz’s, but cloud abstractions nonetheless.
The German painter Gerhard Richter made a series of cloud paintings in the 1970s. A Sotheby’s catalog said, “the clouds are caught in a moment of confrontation between the painterly and the photographic, the representative and the abstract, the natural and the supernatural.” Much of Richter’s art is political or otherwise Postmodern tricks about the nature of art itself. As for the clouds, Richter himself said, “I felt like painting something beautiful.”
He kept a notebook of images, which he called “Atlas,” in which he kept many sketches, photos and paintings of everyday items, and a whole section on nothing but clouds.
I have made countless photographs of clouds. I step out of the house pretty much every day, just to look up and watch clouds. They keep my eyes fresh and my mind invigorated. I have two books I have made: one of images of landforms and clouds seen from my airplane window; and a second of clouds pictures made all on a single afternoon in Arizona during the rising and waning of a monsoon storm. They can be viewed online here and here.
When we spend as much time indoors as most people have these past two pandemic years, it is a relief to refocus our eyes outward (and upward) to a distance beyond the four walls. The clouds are far enough that our stereoscopic vision interprets the distance as indistinguishable from infinity. That refocus is necessary to keep us in touch with the greater things. Too often our eyes are focused on electronic screens held less than arms distant. Stretch your eyes back out. Look up. Keep watching the skies.
Click on any image to enlarge