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Weather Almanac for June 2005
Since early 2005, I have begun painting, both in oils and watercolours, as a new exploration of my world. My oil painting mentor Julianna and I do most of our work in a VW Westfalia parked along Willows Beach here in Victoria. The vista of sea and mountains is enough to inspire many paintings, but the added dimension of variable skies highlights the scene for this weather-watcher's eyes. I based my initial painting on my photograph of a sunset scene from Vancouver Island's west coast. The sketch-photo scene was dominated by the twilight arch with a couple remnant wisps of evening cumulus breaking up the otherwise clear sky. In my next three projects, the sky was secondary to the main subject.
You see, I still have not the courage to tackle clouds on a large scale. Not that I haven't experimented with cloudy skies. I have done several watercolours in which the sky component is a major part of the composition. The one here, entitled "Stormy Day on the Windy Prairies," was one of my first successes, and several others have included cumulus family clouds. Part of my foot-dragging — or is it brush-dragging? — is that internal conflict between the artist and scientist: Am I painting the clouds realistically? Am I being too realistic?
For me, the process of learning any skill is much similar to writing these essays or working on a research project. I immerse myself in the literature and see what others have done before me, and, in the case of a new skill, I seek to learn some basics on the how of the process. My first visit for painting was to the books of one of my favourite influences, Eric Sloane. I have written elsewhere about Sloane and his influence on me and his introduction into the realms of art and weather. Sloane was an artist who focused on painting skies and claims to have invented the term cloudscape. Of the many tips I gained from reading Sloane, the first was so obvious on reflection that I was surprised I never considered it before: The clear sky colour, away from any proximity to the solar orb, is darkest and deepest blue at the zenith and grades to blue/gray or even a dull brown near the horizon.
Sky and Art
But Sloane was obviously not the first to include strong renditions of sky, cloud and storm in his paintings; those elements have been found in paintings from the early works on cave walls. The earliest artistic rendition of clouds and a lightning bolt to be documented was found in Catal Huyuk, Turkey from approximately 6200 BCE. A painting of a rainbow found in the Tassili Mountains of the central Sahara dates from about 3500 BCE. An Olmec petroglyph at Chalcacingo, Mexico dated from 1000 BCE depicts flat-based, multicellular cumuli with virga, concentric-ringed hailstones, and god-exhaled vortices (tornadoes?) amid stalks of maize.
Sky painting in murals likely began with the ancient Greeks, and some surviving Roman landscape murals show realistic sky scenes. Early Chinese landscapes included renditions of fog and simple cumuli. Many early Christian works focused on clouds used as a vehicle for Christ's second coming ("Behold he cometh with clouds") or other Biblical characters (angels sitting on clouds). In general, however, sky details were neglected and skies were just given colour as a background in most pictorial art until the 15th Century.
The 15th Century brought a heightened interest in nature, particularly with the burst of artistic creativity during the Renaissance. We have many examples of sky painting in the works of the Renaissance artists of the 15th and 16th Centuries who brought realistic portrayals of clouds and weather to painting include Leonardo De Vinci, Titian, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, the Bruegels and Jan van Eyck. Van Eyck's background clouds to his "The Crucifixion" has been called the "closest approach to a cloud atlas in the history of art" by meteorologist and art lover Stanley David Gedzelman.
The rendition of sky and storm blossomed with the Romantic Era painters in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. The focus on detailed and scientific painting of clouds may have derived from the classification system of Luke Howard, the "man who named the cloud." His classification system quickly gained a major supporter in the German poet, philosopher and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who spread the knowledge into the art community. The work of Howard and influence of Goethe thus affected many Romantic Era painters directly, notably masters Joseph M.W. Turner and John Constable of England and Caspar David Friedrich (through Goethe) in Germany, who used Howard's descriptions to depict clouds with greater detail and accuracy. Howard himself painted watercolours to illustrate his cloud families.
Later, the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, and the Hudson Valley School, notably Frederic E. Church and Thomas Cole, added many fine works to the realm of sky art. The list could continue for pages of the great artists who incorporated the sky and weather into their paintings. Even the emotional "The Scream" by Edvard Munch has meteorological origins. According to his unpublished notes:
"I was going down the street behind two friends. The sun went down behind a hill over looking the city and the fjord. I felt a trace of sadness and the sky suddenly turned blood red. I stopped walking, leaned against the railing, dead tired....I watched the flaming clouds over the fjord and the city and my friends kept on. I stood there shaking with fear and I felt a great unending scream penetrate unending nature....I painted the picture, painted the clouds as real blood. The colour shrieked — this became "The Scream"...."
I have written about the influence of Eric Sloane and his sky art on my life. But other great masterpieces have found space on my walls that depicted weather. As a student at Michigan, my dormitory room had prints of Winslow Homer and John Steuart Curry on the walls. As a Midwesterner, I was particularly taken by Curry's "Line Storm" and "Tornado Over Kansas." And Charles Russell's "Waiting for the Chinook" was also there as was El Greco's "View of Toledo".
The catalogue of weather paintings and artists who produced fine weather paintings is long and varied. I have used several as illustrations for articles on this site and have a page Weather by the Masters that includes several of them.
NOAA also has a webpage with fifteen art renditions: Historic Weather Art NOAA These include images "found in Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century popular meteorological works that were produced before the advent of easily operated and transported cameras."
Serendipity allowed me to cross paths with a marvelous item on the Internet. It is The Sky in Art a book written but never published by Professor Stanley David Gedzelman of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, City College of New York. Professor Gedzelman permits us to download his complete book, which I have found a great blend of weather and art, in pdf format. I am sorry he never found a publisher.
While the natural world and influence of the sciences has affected the works of millions of artists through the ages, some scientists believe that works of art can give clues to conditions prevailing at the time the works were done. John Constable, for one, believed art might assist science. "Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature," he said in a lecture at the Royal Institute. Constable had a good scientific understanding of weather according to Dr John Thornes, Reader in Applied Meteorology at University of Birmingham and author of John Constable's Skies: A Fusion Of Art And Science. Constable noted the weather conditions on the back of many of his cloud studies and they are dated.
A few decades ago, Peter Brimblecombe of the University of East Anglia, in Great Britain looked at art and literature from centuries past to get an idea of what air pollution conditions may have been. He noted the Impressionist paintings of cities in winter were remarkably yellow in tone, and paintings by Monet and Pissaro depicted city skies as generally hazy, not like fog but like polluted airs.
The late Hans Neuberger surveyed over 12,000 paintings dated from between 1400 and 1967 to chronicle climate changes and found high frequencies of cloudiness and darkness during the Little Ice Age (approximately 1560–1850). The shift from the medieval climate optimum to the Little Ice Age is clearly discernible from the painted characteristics over these epochs. For example, the blue of the sky and the visibility undergo a distinct decline.
Many other researchers have also used a spike in paintings using bright sky colours or portraying rare optical phenomena to infer the atmospheric impacts of large volcanic eruptions. Many of Joseph Turner's works depicted sunsets. It is now clear that he was painting glowing skies caused by sunlight scattering off volcanic dust from the immense eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815.
In 2005, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society named Phil Chadwick its annual tour speaker for 2005/2006. When Phil, who is both a meteorologist specializing in operational meteorology and forecasting and a plein air artist, was in Victoria, I had the opportunity to hear his talk entitled: Forensic Meteorology : CSI (Creative Scene Investigation). In this entertaining and informative talk, Chadwick, known to many as "Phil the Forecaster" used his weather knowledge to analyze some of the plein air paintings of Tom Thomson (and members of the famed Canadian Group of Seven). According to Chadwick: "These artists were honest and accurate observers of the weather and the details they recorded on the canvas are enough to reveal a great deal about the location, direction of their subject and the weather they were experiencing. " Thomson, in particular, was extremely accurate in his sky renditions, and Chadwick has written several essays on CSIs of Thomson paintings. Phil was kind enough to allow me to post several on this site: CSI Algonquin Park and Tom Thomson Views the Dawn. The former looks, in part, at Thomson's rendition of a severe thunderstorm which produced a tornado. The latter discusses a scene painted at dawn with Thomson looking westerly at an approaching low pressure area.
Clouds and weather will always inspire creative people. The beauty and emotions stirred by weather make ideal subjects in their own right as well as adding a dimension of feeling to the background of a painting. A background storm, for example, can give a feeling of anger, rage, or turmoil to a painting. One great example is John Steuart Curry's "The Tragic Prelude" panel of John Brown's role in "Bleeding Kansas" where a Kansas tornado roars in the background on one side and a prairie fire on the other, symbols of the coming fury of the Civil War.
I will move on to skies and storms in my paintings. But even if I did not, the experience of seeing things differently using a painter's eyes has certainly helped hone my weather eyes.
For an updated gallery of my art works in various media, see my website: Art Gallery of Keith C. Heidorn
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