Whenever I’m at a loss as to what to paint for my nightly watercolor practice, I paint a sky. First, I thoroughly wet the top two-thirds of my watercolor paper, above the marked horizon line, then with a fat brush soaked in paint, scribble on some suitable blue – ultramarine or cobalt blue, usually – then let the paint have its way on my slightly tilted board. That’s one of the many beauties of watercolor painting for me: Like the real sky – and life itself — watercolor is unpredictable. It has a mind of its own.
Then, while that paint is still wet, I take a clean, damp, fluffy brush and dab-and-squiggle out some clouds. There’s no formula here, I’ve found. You take your chances. Sometimes those squiggles succeed, and when that happens I feel a little like God: Look! I’ve created clouds! I let my sky dry overnight, then proceed with the landscape the following day.
Now that the rainy season has, at least according to the calendar, begun here in the central mountains of Mexico, the sky is filled with clouds – big, voluptuous, enchanting, mesmerizing cumulus clouds. I’m captivated by them. On my walks – and bus rides into the countryside (see last week’s WOW post, “Sin Carro”) — I study the cloud formations as though I were not only a watercolorist-wannabe but also a child wondering, What? and Why? and How?
“Cumulus clouds,” one kids’ educational website states, “are puffy clouds that sometimes look like pieces of floating cotton. The base of each cloud is often flat and may be only 1000 meters (3,300 feet) above the ground. The top of the cloud has rounded towers. When the top of the cumulus resembles the head of a cauliflower, it is called cumulus congestus or towering cumulus. These clouds grow upward, and they can develop into a giant cumulonimbus, which is a thunderstorm cloud.”
From this distance, here on the ground, these rainy-season cumulus clouds can sometimes look formidable, towering above the landscape, seeming to approach like a white-uniformed army on the march. At other times they resemble angels arrived to do God’s bidding – water-bearers, perhaps, or parasol-providers. And at other times they’re just an innocent children’s game: Name that Formation. Is that a rabbit, I see? Or a crocodile? Or a freshly clipped French poodle? Clouds are shape-shifters. The illusions are endless.
Between 1967 and 1969, when I was in my early twenties and my baby daughter was still missing and the FBI agent handling my case told me I was “just a number” in their files, I would come home from my secretarial job and lie spread-eagle on my living room carpet listening to Judy Collins on my record player sing over and over and over again “Both Sides Now.” Her words and voice soothed me somewhat, after another excruciating day of trying to appear “normal” at work, trying to hide my brokenness with false smiles, pretty dresses and thick makeup.
Judy Collins described the clouds she saw as “bows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feathered canyons everywhere.” I closed my eyes and imagined these images as she sang. And then, of course, came her refrain:
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.
Now here we are, fifty-five years later, and I realize I still really don’t know clouds at all. Which makes me wonder, Do any of us? Perhaps, I’m thinking, the thing is that from this distance we’re not meant to.
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~ To see the complete lyrics to “Both Sides Now” go to:
~ To listen to Judy Collins sing “Both Sides Now”  go to:
~ To watch my watercolor guru, Lois Davidson, give one of her wonderful sky practice tutorials, go to:
~ To read about Somewhere Child and parental kidnapping go to: