Monday, March 4, 2013

Sky - Layers

“Onions have layers, Ogres have layers…”   

Skies have layers.

Above is a photograph from “High life: First look inside the $60,000 per month penthouse at New York by Gehry” in New York Daily News.  Apparently I’m not cut out to be an architect, because my first reaction to this photograph was, “what a great view – what curious clouds.”  Notice that the clouds are a mix of puffy cumulous and wispy cirrus.  Since I was already putting together a blog on cloud layers I added this to the pile of images.

So, let’s talk layers…

A quick and dirty tour of cloud types: 

Stratus and Stratocumulus are both low altitude clouds that are laid out horizontally – creating horizontal lines at the horizon and directional clouds overhead.

Cumulus clouds are the fluffy summer day cotton balls that float along at a low altitude – think of your typical politician’s grayish white helmet of hair.

Cumulonimbus clouds are the towering stacks of heavy rain clouds that are so dramatic – think Marge Simpson’s bee-hive hair style.

Altocumulus and Altostratus are the mid altitude clouds that lay horizontally – they are like the Stratus and Stratocumulus but higher and more broken up; think of fish scales and bird feathers.

Cirrus and Cirrocumulus are the high altitude horizontal clouds – they are wispy and very broken up, like my hair and my reaction to my hair.

The thing to remember is that you have relatively flat clouds that occur at different altitudes in the atmosphere, and then you have dramatic stacking clouds that tower from low to high altitudes.  This simple mix of types allows for an amazing variety of sky conditions that can be used to compliment the rendering of any building.

Seen from an airplane the layers are quite distinct, as in this oil sketch I did after last summer’s trip home.  High altitude clouds give a delicate pattern to the sky above, and low altitude cumulus clouds partially obscure the view of the ground.

Artists have been painting skies for centuries.  The ever changing clouds give any painter a fascinating subject just outside the window.  Frederic Edwin Church became famous (and rich) painting landscapes, and his interest in magnificent cloud-scapes is understandable.  In both of his paintings above; Sunset, Bar Harbor, and Clouds over Olana, he captures the layers that make clouds so complex and interesting.

Half a century later George Sotter of the New Hope School of artists (founded along the Delaware River just 25 miles east of here) was working the same angle, and faithfully capturing the different layers of clouds.  I never liked this painting, but it does reveal a pragmatic understanding of clouds.

N.C. Wyeth, with his outsized persona, reflected the world with a certain exaggeration.  His observation of the sky however, was clear.  In his painting Covered Wagons, he recalls the canvas tops of the wagons in the puffy, floating cumulus clouds, backed by the sky trails made by the altostratus clouds.  

I’ve said before that I would love to paint skies.  Buildings are so ordered, detailed and picky that they have used up all my fastidiousness.  The above oil sketch catches some late afternoon layering north of Allentown, Pennsylvania.

This is a very small oil sketch of a cluster of cloud types I could not have imagined had they not been hanging there in front of me. 

Cloud formations can take some amazing shapes and patterns, but in architectural illustration clouds are normally the background for the building, not the focus of the image.  So it is best to use the wide variety of clouds to present your building in the best light.  A low horizontal building might show best with a pile of Cumulonimbus at the horizon as a frame.  If you have a skyscraper you might find that using horizontal cloud patterns are the best foil to counter the vertical line, as with the Petronas Tower sketch below.  

Generally, clouds should not dominate the subject of the painting, or abuse our sense of perspective.  Otherwise, whatever works, works.

- Sky - Perspective

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