on thinking, clouds in a sketchbook

Saturday 24 July 2010

dear reader, i have had my head in the clouds again, a mild attack of the vapours… the heavy rains came (more of a rain deluge, really) and then swiftly went away again, giving us brilliant blue skies for a day or so, but then those rain clouds gathered ominously once again…

sketchbook drawings - studies of skies and clouds
[sketchbook pages, july 2010]

these are some small sketches from the last few days, all completed during the course of travelling to places – and by humble bus, no less. it’s a surprisingly bumpy ride by bus in the countryside – the pencils which i thought were securely retained in a pencil case threatened to jump overboard and skittle across the floor of the bus, as one did, but luckily the bus was close to empty…

n.b. all of these sketches are all 14cm x 20cm.

drawing study of rain clouds, in a sketchbook
some rain clouds… i guess they are cumulus… with a peek of sky blue…

this is my favourite sketch of one day’s travelling, a brief glimpse of rainfall in the distance (or perhaps it was just the sun’s rays as seen through water vapour after a rainstorm), sketched on the return journey…

study of rain clouds - sketchbook drawing

here is another one completed around lunchtime… it was a bright and breezy day with some sunshine, the clouds gathered up (so to speak) and it was ‘looking like rain again’

sketchbook - sketches of clouds and sky

here is another sketch from earlier in the week (a single, small grey cloud, amongst the white fluff, that caught my eye). i had, to save some money, decided to draw on both sides of the paper in my sketchbooks – but i have noticed how the fugitive nature of graphite has transferred smudgy tones between the sketchbook pages, thus unintentionally clouding this drawing even further…

sketchbook drawing - sketch of a cloud

single grey cloud

sketchbook drawing - sketch of a grey cloud

another dark grey cloud – perhaps these incidental smudgings of graphite add a little life to the process..

there is no desire to use these small sketches as part of a preliminary process for painting – i think they will feed into my painting in other, less obvious ways…

artists sometimes use photography to record the details of things, as visual references for their work, but plein air drawing (or as seen through a window in many of these examples) as a process has its own sensibility – one that is exploratory and purely responsive, of the moment – of making brisk, spontaneous marks in real time, marks that have no definitive end…

i have, i think, a bit of a sketchaholicism when it comes to travelling (when not driving). there is the time and space to just gaze, to drift into momentary vistas, spied for perhaps only a few seconds. this inspires a loose, gestural style of drawing that i continue to work into for a few minutes, with the landscape or sky still there to refer to outside the window, slowing shifting in its perspective… this creates an immediacy and vitality of drawing, which if one were ‘still’ might produce a more technically-laboured outcome as one wrestles with capturing the singular ‘view’. here, in these sketches, the most time i spent on a sketch would be three or four minutes… i look, i draw, i memorise – perhaps it is a form of (re)training,  for the eyes and the visual memory, to hone one’s perception, to be more receptive and impulsive in drawing what one sees… and i like the self-imposed restrictions of drawing on the move

for some contextual reference it would be churlish not to mention suffolk-born artist  john constable, and also jmw turner, for their studies and sketches of skies and clouds. constable and turner were contemporaries, born only a year apart, with perhaps some professional rivalry if not open hostility towards one another at the time. three of the sky studies below are from the period 1822-23… perhaps the industrial, revolutionary smogs of those times made the turbulent skies into art…?

this also begs the big question: who’s the master of the painted skies, constable or turner? constable appears to offer a deeply respectful and naturalistic view of the landscape (rising metaphorically from the dark shadows of the industrial revolution), whereas turner immerses himself (and us, in turn) in the subjective, spiritual nature of landscape as a means to convey elements of the sublime…

john constable - cloud study - tate collection
John Constable, cloud study, circa 1822. oil on paper, 476 x 575 mm

constable - study of clouds - victoria and albert museum, london
John Constable, study of clouds, 5 september, 1822. oil on paper, 298 x 483 mm

what is most interesting in constable’s cloud studies is how they give an insight into his process. his often detailed annotations referring to time and place offer some evidence of the influence of advances in science during the age of enlightenment, although i am sure that romantic painters such as constable would have been a little sceptical.

constable produced many preparatory studies and the final paintings were then completed in the studio. arguably the most famous constable painting, the haywain, was actually completed far away from the suffolk valley it depicted – in hampstead, london. he was truthful to the spirit of nature as he perceived it, a deeply nostalgic and poetic vision of britain’s rural landscape, at a time when the real countryside increasingly exhibited the advancement of a more mechanised, industrial agriculture. i wonder if back then his paintings were seen as aspirational manifestations of a rural idyll existing only in the mind – he once said of his clouds that they were the chief organ of sentiment in his paintings…

turner - storm at sea - watercolour in sketchbook - tate collection - london
JMW Turner, storm at sea circa 1822-3. watercolour on paper, 178 x 257 mm

turner - study of clouds, tate collection, london
JMW Turner, study of clouds, with a shower passing over water circa 1826-32. watercolour on paper, 307 x 487 mm

you can view turner’s sktchbooks online at the tate

constable is undoubtedly the better painter of real skies but turner captures the essential, intangible beauty of the ethereal elements. turner seems to delight in the deft touch, the merest suggestion of colour in atmospheric movement, of a fresh breeze or a sea mist rising. this is meteorology without the boring science bit. these are not absolute recordings but sensory responses and turner’s later paintings always remind me that less is often more.

i find the implied sensitivity in these small studies most fascinating when what we know of turner’s personal life is that he was often brash and, how shall we say, a tad unrefined in demeanour, but let’s not spoil the painterly magic. turner’s magnificence as a painter and his influence on modern art is undeniable – as rothko once apparently said, this man Turner, he learnt a lot from me‘. sometimes, i can’t help imagining that if turner had just cleaned his brush on a scrap of paper it would be later viewed as yet another sketch of a storm at sea… constable, i think, would not have been so carefree…

lastly… i have just penned a quick haiku style poem, in honour of some fluffy white clouds…

reigning clouds
sometimes flirt a little
when spurning summer’s heated advances…

6 thoughts on... on thinking, clouds in a sketchbook

  1. Jazz

    thank you for that charles – have to admit i did not know his work but now having just googled and viewed his website i can see the connection to jmw turner. very expressive, energetic, spirited, out in the elements – and clearly a very prolific (and successful) artist too. i like some of the pieces on rough card or is it paper?

    one contemporary artist he reminds me of though is kurt jackson – one to research if you don’t know already – i watched a film of jackson painting out in the elements a while back, after someone at work had mentioned that i might like his work – i didn’t know about him either. it’s very much what seems to be happening in landscape painting at the moment in the uk – there are lots of artists here in east anglia too that work in this very dynamic, expressive way – it’s undeniably popular and appeals to the senses…

    i think i am really too much of a reductive type, way too formalist and process-oriented for my own good to do the ‘full-on’ out in the bleak landscape thing! but, who knows??? maybe the sketching will influence something. it’s the working in a small ‘book’ that i quite like – the journalling aspect of it – as an antidote to labour-intensive studio work!! however, as a coincidence i found some old photographs today of some weather collages i did back in the early 90s – but yet again they were quite abstract…

  2. Jazz

    oh – and i should have said that it is the clouds i really like to draw – the morphing shapes and subtle tones – clearly i am expressing a subconscious desire to be transported elsewhere…

  3. Charles

    ‘Exchange is no robbery’ as they say (well, they say it up here in the grim North) – I hadn’t come across kurt jackson before!

    I too like the energy and dynamism in such painters, the image almost becomes visual ‘noise’ that is discordant (Im a visual and aural person) so for me it represents the sublime and chaotic side of nature, towards dissolution.

    I’ve tried and tried to get this into my work before giving up as I also prefer the solitutude and framework of processes and a studio lol

    If you don’t mind me opening some ideas up for discussion, my teacher mentioned that he thought that ‘people dont care much for painting anymore’ in a kind of mournful way, as he himself is an abstract painter with an interest in hard-eged geometric stuff. I wonder what the current art world and others think of this statement?

  4. Jazz

    painting is dead, long live painting!

    jackson is an exemplary example, at the forefront of landscape painting, dealing with very complex ecological issues in the environment – not just swooshing it about in a romantic, painterly fashion… i am glad i was introduced to his work, but alas have not seen any in the ‘flesh’…

    wow, it’s a big subject “painting” but what i will briefly say is that the printing press (gutenberg onwards..) did not kill painting, nor did photography in the 1840s, in fact a big influence on impressionists… neither has conceptual art, the pool has just got bigger and the big fish (the sharks!) tend to make the most ripples on the surface..

    sorry, am thinking on my feet, i’ll be back later…

  5. Jazz

    i’ve just done a little research using google’s zeitgeist…

    on comparing painting to photography over the last five years… more people are consistently searching for photography than painting, but within the news/media coverage painting always peaks above photography – stories such as stolen/found masterpieces, record sales at auction….. photography doesn’t make such headlines, the exception perhaps being ansel adams at the moment!

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