Vortic Curated Views – We All Share the Same Sky by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
The Romantic landscape painter John Constable described the sky as the ‘keynote’ and the ‘chief organ of sentiment’ for any landscape painting. It’s the part that brings feeling and emotion to a scene. In the early 1820s, Constable spent two years painting nothing but Cloud Studies – small, loose, sketches like the one included in this exhibition that depicts a sky with the clumpy layered cloud called Stratocumulus. The period of intense ‘skying,’ as Constable called it, was his exploration of the sky and what it means to us. This exploration is one all artists gathered here have undertaken in their own individual ways.
You might think that the sky, as the ever-present backdrop to our lives, would be so familiar to us as to feel mundane. Perhaps for some people it is, but not for us at the Cloud Appreciation Society. And I would argue that most people, once they stopped to consider the sky, would agree there is something magical, mysterious, and enigmatic about clouds.
This might be to do with the way they seem to be there and not there at the same time. Take a low cloud like the bright white Cumulus that forms on a sunny day. This is the one featured floating off the coast of Sussex in some of the Ocean series of photographs by John Richard. That same type of cloud, this time looking dark in silhouette against the dazzling Sun beyond, also features in the piece by Martyn Cross. Cumulus clouds like these seem so solid, so weighty – but only, of course, until you fly up close, at which point they turn out to be just fleeting wisps of elevated fog. ‘Bodies without surface,’ is how Leonardo Da Vinci described them.
The magical quality of clouds might also come from the way they appear and disappear seemingly at will.
Clouds are water in motion, in transformation from one state of matter to another, changing from visibility in the form of tiny droplets or ice crystals to invisibility in the form of the gas known as water vapour. Buoyed along by the capricious currents of the atmosphere, clouds are the most ephemeral of nature’s displays. This transient quality of clouds comes across in Lewis Brander’s Variations of Light that depicts a Cumulus fractus cloud fraying at the edges as it dissipates at the end of day and catches the pink rays of the dying light to stand out momentarily against the overcast, Altostratus sky beyond. The transient nature of clouds is also at the heart of Berndnaut Smilde’s Nimbus series.
The clouds he creates within architectural spaces are the most fleeting, impermanent of sculptures, existing momentarily out-of-context to be documented on film before they dissipate away to nothing – perhaps to reform one other up where they belong?
The narrative of the sky is always advancing, but it is one that has no beginning and no end.
The Latin names we use for clouds were first proposed by Luke Howard in 1802, whose watercolour sketches also feature in this exhibition. Among the formations he named and painted here, is the high cloud Cirrus. Composed of ice crystals cascading from the upper reaches of the troposphere, Cirrus is the most ethereal of the ten main cloud types and was named by Howard with Latin for a ‘lock’ or ‘curl’ of hair. The higher ice-crystal clouds like Cirrus are translucent, and so the formations at different levels appear diaphanous, one viewed through the other.
Just like the overlayered oils in David Abbott’s paintings, cloudscapes made up of these formations look like landscapes glimpsed in dreams. They are rendered by the diffuse interplay of light and suspended water – the same that features in the two watercolours by JMW Turner, who proudly confessed ‘indistinctness is my forte.’
Little wonder, then, that clouds are the perfect invitations to our imagination. Spend time looking up and you can’t help but find shapes, like the playful forms captured by Andras Bartok or those described by the sky-gazers in Genesis Báez’s video piece. Finding shapes in clouds is an aimless pastime that is universal – one that can be traced in human culture as far back as the plays of the Ancient Greeks and which, no doubt, occupied idle minds long before that.
Moments spent contemplating the sky, whether finding shapes in a cloud, finding hope in a sunrise, or solace at the end of the day, always feel intimate and personal. But the sky is all-encompassing, and so this relationship is also universal. We all share the same sky because we all inhabit the ocean of air that is our atmosphere, living within the sky rather than beneath it. And because clouds come to us, they are the aspect of nature within easy reach of everyone.
To explore our connections with the sky, as each artist in this exhibition seeks to do, is to embrace what is common between us all.
About the author:
Gavin Pretor-Pinney is founder and Member 001 of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which has over 61,000 members in 120 countries. He is the author of the internationally bestselling Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006) and Cloud Collector’s Handbook (2009) as well as A Cloud A Day (2021). Gavin is a winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. He is a TED Global speaker with over 1.3 million views. He has presented television documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a Visiting Fellow at the Meteorology Department of Reading University and winner of the Royal Meteorological Society’s Michael Hunt award. Based in Somerset, England, Gavin co-founded the Idler, a magazine that argues for the importance of downtime in creative thinking.
Cloud Appreciation Society:
The Cloud Appreciation Society has over 61,000 members in 120 countries – all united in the belief that the sky’s the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature. The Society exists to bring people together through a greater understanding and appreciation of the sky.
Image and artworks credits: Amie Siegel, Cloude, 2022. Clot, 2022. Cloot, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery. John Richard, Ocean III, 2021. Ocean X, 2021. Ocean I, 2020. Ocean II, 2021. Ocean IX, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus Museum De Lakenhal, 2022 and Nimbus Kunstmuseum Erezaal, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Arkhyp Kuindzhi, Red Sunset, 1905-08. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Latifa Echakhch, Inking (The cardboard suitcase), 2014. Courtesy of Latifa Echakhch and Dvir Gallery. Andras Bartok, Untitled, 2018, Untitled, 2018, and Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist. Donald Baxter MacMillan, Six suns, 1913 – 1917.Courtesy of the artist and Miriam MacMillan. Forrest Bess, Untitled, 1970. Courtesy of Modern Art London. Lewis Brander, Variations of Light, 2019 – 2022, Courtesy of the artist and Vardaxoglou Gallery. Variations of Light, 2020 – 2022. Private Collection, London. Courtesy of the artist and Vardaxoglou Gallery. Martyn Cross, Roarings Further Out, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery. Donald Baxter MacMillan, Six suns, 1913 – 1917, Courtesy of the artist and Miriam MacMillan. David Abbott, Lachrimae, 2023. Refrain, 2023. Let Your Body Be Where It Shall Be With You Still, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.