The young, talented, musical genius named Joni Mitchell penned these lyrics in the mid 1960s:
“Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feathered canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way…
I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all.”
[ Section of the lyrics from “Both Sides Now,” from the album Clouds by Joni Mitchell ]
Many of her peers, David Crosby for example, thinks of her as “the greatest singer-songwriter of the late twentieth century” [Lloyd Whitesell, Popular Music, May 2002]. In December 2021, she was recognized by President Biden at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Mitchell was inspired to write the song by a book and the scene outside her airplane window. Amanda London relates this story to the genesis of the song:
I was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book, Henderson the Rain King was also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and he sees these clouds.
I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.
[ Joni Mitchell ]
Other expressions of clouds...
Sky Above Clouds IV, Georgia O'Keefe, Art Institute of Chicago.
Here is Georgia O'Keefe's interpretation of clouds from an airplane window in 1965 — at almost the exact same time as Joni Mitchell was writing her song interpreting the scene from her plane window.
O'Keeffe's stylized version suggests the flattening of the clouds when observed from above.
Even clouds follow the rule of “atmospheric perspective” and become less in focus, flatter, and lighter in value as they move toward the vanishing point on the horizon. (Note O'Keeffe uses dark blue at the front of the painting and light, pale blue at the back of the paining.) This stunning, very imposing piece is on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago, and is 8' high and 24' long. Oil on canvas.
"Kai Kavus Attempts to Fly to Heaven," Folio a Shahnama (Book of Kings). From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
In 15th C Islamic art, these clouds were created in watercolor with gold on paper. They are represented as shapes with ornate details. The dramatic dragon-like clouds surround Prince Kai Kavus in the sky as he attempts to fly to heaven. He has harnessed young eagles to his throne to defy his earthly weight. Notice how small the original is: 6.5” x 7.5”.
Andhrayaki Ragini: Folio from a ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes). Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
In this colorful, romantic piece of Islamic art from 1710, an affluent young woman rests on a bed, awaiting a lover. In frustration she is pulling out her hair. The scalloped shaped clouds in the air are threatening a violent storm. Lightning bolts are crashing through the roiling heavy storm. The tumultuous sky is a metaphor for the “turmoil of love.” This also is a very small piece: 7 3/8” x 4 7/8”.
"Fête pour la Paix Générale donnée à Paris le 18 Brumaire. Pont et Place de la Concorde." by Francesco Piranesi and François Jean Sable. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
This engraving enhanced with watercolor was created to celebrate Napoleon’s coup d’état, 1799. Behind the Rive Gauche along the Pont de la Concorde are giant cumulous clouds lit by the celebratory fireworks. Artificial lights brighten the roadway on the bridge. Size: 25 3/16” x 32 5/16”.
I am mesmerized by this scene. It is easy to imagine being there and seeing the fireworks exploding in the sky and creating these brilliant auras of light bouncing off the clouds. You can almost hear the sound and wait for the delayed smell of gunpowder as it wafts across the Seine and over the Tuileries bridges.
On to clouds in my art...
Sky in Cleveland, Ohio. "Contemplating Skies," by Jane M. Mason (c)
"Contemplating Skies." This is one of my favorite un-retouched photographs I took when I lived in Cleveland. I was at a neighborhood park by a regional airport. I loved sitting in this park and watching night fall. This was one of the more remarkable skies I watched develop and cycle through until dark. So calming. All will be well. (This image is not on my website, but let me know if you are interested in purchasing a print of it.)
"Best Friends," two dogs running on the beach at low tide. This image is available from my website as an original painting or as a greeting card. This reminds me of so many dogs I know, and many humans who love dogs, too. For me, there are certain images that just convey joy. This is one of them.
"Sailors Take Warning. Gloucester, MA." It was a day like this that I was standing there with a good friend from school and marveling at the power of the scene; the power of the ocean. I felt the energy in the atmosphere, the wind, the sound of the storm. I remembering bundling up against the wind and tightening my scarf before we headed back to the car. This original painting is available on my website.
"Petite Beyond the Pine Trees." A beautiful cloudy backdrop behind a colorful river bank. This is a framed hand-created textile landscape overlooking a river that is churning with spring rainfall. A little patch of shore in the foreground may be a good spot for some fly fishing or some plein air painting. This original, framed piece is 9" x 9" and is available on my website.
"Mother is a Word for Love." This is a greeting card created from my original watercolor painting featuring a rural scene with a farmhouse and a windy, cloudy sky. This is available as a greeting card on my website.
Now, a quote about "clouds" from Eckhart Tolle, Spiritual Teacher and Philosopher
"You are the sky. The clouds are what happens, what comes and goes."
[ Eckhart Tolle ]
People frequently ask me how to find some peace in these troubling days. Of course my first answer is to learn how to watercolor 🙂
One of my next suggestions is to look up, and simply watch the sky.
As Joni Mitchell reminds us, you may not find the answers you are looking for. But in my experience the patterns and endless parade of images can distract and entertain you while you step away from the intensity of your day.
"Clouds Dancing," by Jane M. Mason (C) 2022.