What do Winnie the Pooh and 18th-century artist John Constable have in common? Do you give up? They share an interest in clouds. Pooh, of course, was mainly interested in being a cloud in order to deceive some bees. Nonetheless, he seemed to understand the charm of cloud-ness when he sang 'How sweet to be a cloud / floating in the blue! / It makes him very proud / to be a little cloud.' Personally, I too would be proud to be a little cloud.
Constable, on the other hand, was obsessed with clouds for proper artistic reasons. For a number of years he painted them every day, and took meticulous notes on the weather conditions in which he painted them. He called this practice 'skying', and said of himself "I am the man of clouds". Some cloud enthusiasts like to claim that the original cloud-taxonomer, Luke Howard, based his descriptions on Constable's paintings. Others beg to differ, but we're not here to argue with any of them ... we're here to ponder how clouds can do so much to tell a story and create a mood in narrative illustration.
Clouds of Glory
Constable was not the only painter enamoured of clouds. During the Renaissance, when art was predominantly narrative, artists infused their works with wonder and awe by piling mountains of billowing cloud above the heads of mortals, and below the feet of divinities. Borrowing from the skies to astonish the hearts of earth-bound viewers, these painters employed clouds the better to suggest the glories of God and his angels, most of whom conducted their business from amongst those swelling ramparts of mist and fog.
Clouds of Doom
It is a sad fact universally acknowledged that clouds are not always signs of exalted spiritual states. They can also have doom-laden connotations, most especially for the doomed. Clouds are a useful device for signifying not just the holiness of Heaven and the horrors of Hell, but the wrath of the gods as well. Wrathful clouds featured heavily whenever someone had transgressed against a divinity of some kind.
Zeus, for example, wrathfully banished the Titans from Olympus from an Olympian throne of cloud. Who can blame him ... two of the Titans were his own parents and they had swallowed his three siblings. The clouds from which he dispenses his punishment are almost solid with wrath. The clouds also play a powerful compositional role in suggesting the vastness of the heavens, something a plain blue sky could never illustrate.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when painting became more secular and Romantic, clouds continued to tell doomful stories, though of a more earthly nature. Paintings of storm clouds were a favourite topic, especially when they included shipwreck, which they often did. In the painting below, the dark violence of storm clouds is highlighted by the rend in the clouds through which the cool calm eye of the moon gazes on the wreckage below. This juxtaposition of storm and calm draws our attention to the pathos of the doomed sailors, for whom the passing of the storm has come too late.
Clouds of Charm
Thankfully, most clouds are not doom laden. It is probably a good thing that they are also not always indicative of divine presence, as this could become overwhelming. Most often, clouds are simply charming. And yet this cloudy charm can have a powerful effect, as it does in Fragonard's painting The Swing (below). My instant response to this painting is of both warmth and chill, of sunlight and shadow. There is a bright sunlit spot where the group of people are enjoying themselves being frivolous (tut!), but over yonder, far from their charmed circle, there is deep shadow and probably also rain. There is (for me) a feeling of temperateness, of fecundity ... but also of some kind of transience. Would this have been possible without the clouds, I wonder?
Claude Lorrain was an inveterate painter of picturesque landscapes. Generally, the elements he used in his pictures and the moods he created with them remained pretty consistent. This includes the way he painted clouds. Lorraine's clouds were not dramatic, and he seems not to have used them for dramatic or even narrative effect, even when his subject was a heaven-and-earth shattering moment of mythological history. His Judgement of Paris is a strangely calm and peaceful scene, despite illustrating the raging jealousy between rival goddesses that led to the devastation of the Trojan War. The unruffled skyscape contributes significantly to this effect.
Many picture-book artists understand the power of clouds. Clouds can establish mood, be portents of the unknown, suggest marvels, be metaphors for thoughts and passions, and tell stories of their own.
Rovina Cai makes excellent use of clouds to suggest ghastliness. In her illustration below, clouds (or is it noxious smoke?) congeal to become fearsome creatures
Then there are Fragonard-like clouds of charm that lift our hearts even as they remind us that shadow follows sunlight.
Even rainy-day clouds in picture books tend not to be doom-laden (though some are). French illustrator par excellence Beatrice Alemagna paints dark heavy skies that make us want to go outside and stamp in puddles, which is exactly what her character in On a Magical Do-nothing Day ends up doing. Dark clouds, too, can be joyful when handled in the right way.
And then there are illustrators who play with clouds to help tell certain parts of the story. In Clancy & Millie and the very fine house, Freya Blackwood uses clouds in the first two spreads to foreshadow a later event in the story, as well as illustrating a psychological theme. First we see cheerful white clouds in the shape of pigs, and on the next spread we find darker and more menacing clouds in the shape of wolves who chase the pig clouds away. Later in the story Clancy and Millie build houses out of cardboard boxes and play at "The Three Little Pigs". But the bullying wolves also represent the dark emotions Clancy feels when he moves into an unfamiliar house: a move that chases away his sense of familiarity and security and replaces them with uncertainty.
Four Ingredients: How to Transform an Illustration with only Four Things (one of them a cloud)
Now that we know how clouds can help a picture suggest anything from awe to despair to calmness to astonishment, it is time to discover how to achieve all these things for ourselves with the minimum of fuss and using only four ingredients.
- Draw a horizon
- Draw a single tree and a single house.
- Draw a cloud.
- Now try the same landscape with a different cloud - a towering cloud, a wide cloud, a tiny, huge, low, high cloud, a cloud to the left, a cloud to the right. Do you notice how each variation suggests a different mood?
- It's fun, yes?
- Now draw the horizon lower, or higher, or steeper; the house and tree bigger or smaller or in a different spot.
- Now add clouds a la Point 4.
- There is no end to the variations ...
The moral: never underestimate the narrative power of a cloud.