I have long been a cloud watcher. My husband and I share this fascination with clouds. We were delighted to discover that there were like minded souls out there when we encountered the character of Doc Homer in Barbara Kinsolver's novel, Animal Dreams. Doc Homer spent hours photographing the desert clouds. It is not uncommon for my husband and I to pull off the road just to watch the changing cloud formations and take pictures. One day, as I rummaged through a used bookstore I discover the another text about a fellow cloud lover, Luke Howard. The book, The Invention of Clouds, tells the story the father of modern meteorology's life and how he defined and named the clouds and their formations. Admired by the German poet philosopher, Goethe, Howard's work became known throughout Europe making this quiet, unassuming Londoner the toast of a continent in a day when natural science "philosophers" spoke to sold out crowds.
As I sit on the beach, the crowded atheneums of the 18th and 19th century Europe seem far away. My chosen medium, watercolor, seems well suited in my attempt to capture the mutability of the clouds. I learned quickly that in order to capture clouds in paint, one does not paint them at all, one paints around the cloud with only the most subtle values within their non-corporeal bodies in order to define the forms within. Here are a few of my first cloud sketches below:
My interest in clouds seems to always be marked by serendipitous events. I suppose that should not be surprising for such an ephemeral phenomenon as clouds. During my most recent visit to The Met in New York, I encountered a small exhibit of new works whose focus appeared to be clouds. The first to catch my eye was a work by a small watercolor by the great British landscape painter, John Constable. The viewer can immediate gather these are "cloudscapes" painted by landscape painters. Notice the low horizon line and atmospheric perspective enhanced by masterful handling of subtle hues and values defining the earth forms and the depth and movement of the sky. So much of the white of the paper is used. It seems to me that like poetry, the challenge of clouds is to not paint too much, less being more.
The real surprise to me however, was a series of woodblock prints by Georgia O'Keefe's mentor Arthur Wesley Dow. Experimenting in the Japanese Ukiyo-e technique Dow created the prints seen below. It is interesting to note that Dow is also the author of what was for the early part of the 20th century a well known text, Composition. Dow's compositional principles are greatly influence by the Asian aesthetic, in that there is a strong focus on the use of and carving of negative space as an active contributor to visual movement and balance within a work of art. I suppose it is not surprising then that Dow loved clouds too.
Those of you who have worked with me know my long time interest in the American artist, William Hamilton Gibson. As I progressed in my sketch studies and observations of clouds, an evening with a full moon gave provide a wonderful opportunity: clouds framing the moon. Looking out at the moon rising over the water I was reminded of an Illustration be Gibson, seen below. Nest to that is my first attempt at this amazing challenge in values.
Severn students on the main interior stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC 12/21/17
The first day of Winter Break most students plan to sleep late...
and then there are my students. 21 of them opted to get up on that cold December morning long before dawn, board a Greyhound bus in downtown Baltimore, breakfast and transfer in Philly, re-board a Greyhound to Port Authority NYC to take to subway and walk across Central Park to see one of the most important collections of the works of the great Renaissance master Michelangelo.
The trek was well worth it! This historic show highlighted not only Michelangelo's architectural designs, but his creative process as both architect and what we term now, fine artist. The Renaissance did not make such distinctions in disciplines. Indeed, the visual arts as well as the design fields all employ the very same elements and principles with drawing as the primary vehicle for the creative process and communicating ideas. This show brought the primacy of drawing as The tool for the creative process to the forefront.
As a artist myself, it was an amazing privilege to have a view that spanned across the centuries into the intimate process of one of the greatest creative minds in human history. The curation of the show allowed the viewer close access the to works and the ability to linger. The curation cards as well as helpful audio guide, provided translations of written notes. All further inviting the viewer into the world of Michelangelo. Access to a world that the artist himself would have been loathe to provide. Michelangelo was well known for his reticence, demanding standards of himself and others, as well as an intense dislike for society. But the drawings provide visual confirmation of his admirable work ethic as evidenced in one of his most famous quotes: "If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."
Evidence of Michelangelo's work ethic is clear through his hundreds of working drawings that show an ever moving pen studying human anatomy, experimenting with various designs and postures, reviewing those ideas through sketching multiple views that enable his mind's eye to move around the figure, and endless detail studies. seen below. Evidence of his mastery is even more clear for many of us practice, indeed these sketches are inspiration to do so, but it is very few who are so accomplished as a result of dedication to our practice.
As an art educator I was profoundly touched by the following sketch where the Master has sketched an eye in profile and asked his students to copy it on the same page. Just as today, so it was in the 1500's, students struggle with line, control of medium, and subtleties of value to create the illusion of form. All the while, the Master gently admonishes the student in his notes on the page, "Patience, Patience!"
I certainly expected this exhibit to be a memorable one. But, there are moments, beyond merely being memorable, when we encounter works of art that move us to the core. Sometimes, it stems from a work that overwhelms us with its sheer beauty, perhaps it holds personal meaning for us, or even perhaps the scale of the work itself. It can even be the assurance within the lines of the work that seem an affirmation that creating the beautiful is indeed the highest of human pursuits. A wonderful day and gift to experience these works by Michelangelo in person!