Lifting the Clouds

This past May, I sat in on a watercolor class taught by Anita Ellison at the Olympia Center downtown. I didn't actually sit, but wandered around the classroom watching the small group of students paint clouds. Anita is a talented artist and beloved teacher of this cozy group of beginning painters. So beloved that many of her "beginners" have been in the class for nine years. Anita kindly agreed to get her students to try painting clouds for my benefit--to help me learn how to really see clouds.

I found my way to Anita through a friend who is the biologist at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I asked her if any plein aire painters ever gathered at the refuge to paint clouds. It's one of my favorite places to watch clouds and I was certain painters would flock there to capture the glory of the skies above the Sound and Mt. Rainier.

First Duh Lesson: Clouds move. Plein aire painters don't paint clouds outside. They take photographs of them and then paint them later--inside, in places like art studios.

Anita was one of these artists. The photographs of clouds she was planning to use in class this day were imported from Yosemite National Park, CA, where Anita had just been on vacation. Granted, the clouds were luscious cumulus heaps that deserved to be painted, but I couldn't help but think our local clouds were just as deserving. But this class is about learning how to paint--not necessarily learning how to paint local.

With all the ease of a pro, Anita mixed a limited palette of cobalt, raw sienna, burnt umber, Alizarin crimson, ochre, and cerulean. With loose, sweeping strokes, she washed the heavy-weight watercolor paper with water and then with ochre for warmth. She diluted and swirled raw sienna and burnt umber and created a soft and inviting earth. Gentle hills seemed to rise off the paper. Ochre touched with cerulean gave the hills the green of life. It was so quick, so magical, so simple, so elegant. Paint and paper--not PaintShop.

Above the hills, Anita created the sky with cerulean, cobalt, and bit of crimson. As in nature, she painted the sky darker at the top, lighter toward the horizon. Before the paint could begin to dry, Anita began making clouds. With a paper towel. The kind you buy at the grocery store. The kind, I had always thought, intended for blotting up milk and other spills. Anita tore off one paper towel from the roll, scrunched it up in one hand, and then began blotting the wet blue sky.

Clouds. Lovely puffy white clouds. Cumulus congestus. In the wake of every blot was a cloud. I was tempted to grab the paper towel, shake it out, and look for package of special cloud-making chemicals inside. Surely there was something up her sleeve?

But no. What Anita was doing was called "lifting." She was simply lifting off the blue paint before it dried to expose the white of the paper. The way the paper towel was scrunched, the pressure Anita applied, the roll of her wrist as she worked the paper towel across the sky revealed whiteness in the shape of clouds.

In Nature, clouds are formed by warm, moist air rising and condensing into visible droplets of water or ice crystals. The shapes they assume depend on factors such as temperature, dew point, pressure, and altitude. In Art, clouds can be formed by applying then removing colored water from paper. In Nature, the air rises to form clouds. In Art, the water is lifted.