John Constable: Cloud Studies

Today, as the weather was particularly vile, I went to visit The Ferens Art Galley in Hull city centre. I went to look at maritime paintings and landscapes to see if anything in particular grabbed my attention. I know the collection very well and think we are so lucky to have such an excellent gallery with a fine selection of art so close and free for everyone.

As I have been reading about the romantic artists I went to examine one of my favorite paintings, the Constable sky study with fresh eyes.

It is very intimate in scale and simple in composition and content, the sky dominates. The brushstrokes are very loose and fresh giving energy and a sense of movement to the scene. The sky is broody with the last vestiges of the good weather being engulfed by the swirling, darker heavy clouds. The hints of pink, reflections of the sun underneath the clouds, soften the feeling and add contrast to the green foreground.

Great Works: Study Of Clouds (1822) by John Constable

Tom Lubbock: The Independent,  Friday 21st November 2008

Clouds are complex natural phenomena, which challenge our capacity for accurate observation.

This Study of Clouds by Constable claims a strictly observational status. His vantage point is Hampstead Heath. The canvas is marked on the back: “31 Sept 10-11 o’clock morning looking Eastward a gentle wind to East.”

The structure is so elusive that it might have arrived with no deliberate shaping. Perhaps it appears in the painting simply because it appeared in the sky, and Constable transcribed it with unblinking accuracy from an ambiguous natural cloud formation. Or perhaps it materialised through an act of drifting painting, the brush improvising.

“You can’t be sure that the artist was doing any manipulation, or was even aware of the quasi-pattern emerging. So Constable’s own work ends up like nature itself – a phenomenon in which you can see shapes, but where no conscious shape-making has taken place.”

“Five years before Constable painted this picture, Keats was writing, in praise of a rare creative faculty. He called it “Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. It happens when artists know how to stay back, leaving their work open, unsolved, holding unknowns. If you want to know what negative capability looks like in paint, it looks like this.”


In contrast I came upon a painting I had never noticed before which greatly intrigued me. John Selby-Bigge: Composition 1936

John Selby-Bigge: Composition 1936

I know nothing about this artist other than that he was associated with the surrealist and the British neo romantics such as Paul Nash. This painting struck me as being very odd, very stylised, part figurative and part abstract. It has a strong sense of foreboding, with the approaching danger of the rocks and imminent storm intensifying the vulnerability of the boat. I enjoy the strong colours, the mark-making and particularly the stylised rock shapes. The rocks and the foreground water have a strength and confidence in the way they have been rendered which makes the boat and the sky seem more naive in style.

Other paintings I found interesting were;

Ivon Hitchens: The path between waters 1937

Ivon Hitchens: The path between waters, 1937

Of all the paintings I saw today this one struck me as being closest to my own approach. It is spontaneous, gestural, loose and abstract but suggestive of landscape. I love the brooding, subtle palette and decorative quality of the mark-making.

Paul Nash: The Rye Marshes 1932

Paul Nash: The Rye Marshes 1932

I like the geometry and starkness of this painting.  Originally commissioned by BP and Shell for a poster which reads “Everywhere you go you can be sure of Shell” This was of interest as BP are very present in the industry on the Humber.

About Annemarie Tickle

I am a Lecturer in Textiles at Hull School of Art and Design. As a visual artist I am interested in atmospheric conditions and events and how the scale of nature makes mans mark on the landscape look insignificant. I enjoy the act of doing and getting my hands dirty so my practice is intensly process led. I use a wide range of media but am particular interested in dying techniques.
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13 Responses to John Constable: Cloud Studies

  1. What a great post. I learned a great deal. I particularly like the John Selby-Bigge. It reminds me of the power of the oceans and the lakes here in Canada, but in a completely different style than we see in the Canadian naturalists. Beautiful.

    • Thank you for you very positive comment, I am pleased you have got something for yourself from my post. I have not researched any of the Canadian naturalists I will look further into it. Perhaps you could recommend some artists to me? Annemarie

      • Sure. Start with The Group of Seven, the revered cadre of painters who established a Canadian landscape style. There was a major retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, just ended. Their images are entwined with the Canadian psyche.

        I’ve done a post about the Group of Seven, here:

        Thank you for asking.

        • Thank you for these leads, shame I have missed the Dulwich show, I was in London recently too 😦 Anyway I will take a look at your suggestions I am sure they will be of great interest and help for my research. Annemarie

  2. Cloud Studying, now there’s a past time worthwhile time, Like it

  3. I love constable, there was this major retrospective on his works a few months ago in MSK (Gent, Belgium). It contained plenty cloud studies as well, very intriguing in my opinion..

    Also i love the works you compare with his.. Nicely done!

    Cheers from Belgium.

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