Iconic Clouds

“Quarterly” – 24ʺ ✕ 36ʺ – Acrylic, inkjet, and mixed media on canvas mounted on wood panel

Back in October of last year I spent a couple of days in Pacific City, OR for a work retreat. We spent a day in a conference room showing each other slide presentations about our hopes and dreams for the coming year. The conference room was in a hotel by the ocean. This was both a welcome break from the routine of post-pandemic video-calls and terribly tantalizing. The ocean is just right there. I can see it.

In the morning, before our team breakfast and all-day meeting, I made a point to get out of bed early enough to go walk on the beach. It was a foggy morning. On parts of my walk the horizon disappeared and could only see about 50 yards in front of me. After walking about a mile I lost sight of everything familiar and felt like I was walking on the moon. I snapped some photos of the grey coast that morning; one of these photos became the backdrop of this painting.

I wrote previously about my struggle with painting clouds in this painting. I was trying to imagine what it might look like to cut a hole through the fog and see the sky on the other side. I also wanted to play with taking two “cheesy” subjects, the ocean and a sunrise, and combining them in an interesting way that perhaps defied one’s expectations of a landscape or a “beach scene”.

The tangerine takes the place of the sun in a sunrise. It also is a stand-in for still-life painting as a genre. In traditional still life paintings the bright subject would often be placed on a dark, neutral background like a shelf against a wall or a draped cloth. Here that neutral background is a photograph of the ocean. I liked the incongruity.

When I started this painting I knew I wanted to revisit some earlier cloud “icons” I created for an earlier series of paintings and digital images shared to Instagram.

I lost the original Sketch file I created for cloud icons, so I had to start over. No problem, I remembered the recipe.

My cloud icon is created three circles, aligned to a horizontal line. The diameter of each circle is a fibonacci number. I measured these out using inches, so from smallest to largest, the circles are 2, 3, and 5 inches in diameter. The units aren’t important really. If you scale the shapes up or down, the relative sizes stay the same. The center of each circle is 3 inches (horizontally) from its neighbor. This creates a little bit of overlap, so when the shapes are all filled in (and a rectangle to flatten out the bottom) you get a nice gentle cloud shape.

I printed my cloud icon out, trimmed away the background and taped it to my painting to visualize where the iconic cartoon clouds should live.

Once I landed on a location I used my shiny new compass and constructed my clouds. I created a reference baseline and added marks to align the centers of the circles. I lightly drew in the circles with the compass and then covered those lines with blue painter’s tape. With a hobby knife, I cut away the interior of the circles. I decided, pretty much arbitrarily, that these iconic clouds would have a ½” border. I decided to inset the shape with more circles to create the border - but I didn’t really think it through, leading to a happy accident later.

I painted borders first, up against the tape barrier, allowing several coats to dry. I taped over the border and cut out a new smaller shape. My thinking was that I would paint the interior of the cloud over the border, leaving nice sharp lines all the way around.

I miscalculated though. By moving the border inside my shape, the ½” thick inset no longer connected nicely into clean, sharp points. Whoops. Note to self sketch the inner circles first, then add to the outside. Better luck next time. Using my compass I created a sort of elliptical connection from the smallest circle to the largest.

Turns out I like this very much. It breaks up the rigid geometry of the icon and gives a small sense of motion or direction to the cloud. As if the wind is pushing on the left hand side and the cloud is piling up over the right.

As I was taping off and repeating my cloud icon below the tangerine, I slapped some post-it notes onto my painting. Since the original trip which inspired these photos was all about work and planning I wanted to bring those ideas into this painting. The location and the task were discordant to me. Who wants to think about work at the beach? After placing the post-its where I liked them, I penciled in their corners and created taped off silhouettes where they would eventually be recreated in paint. I think it’s very funny and interesting that a little lightly colored square of paper is identifiable to us as a thing. Not just a specific thing, a thing with a brand name and a job to do.

I chose to make my painted post-its reference the sunrise and sky colors. For good measure, I sketched in another little cartoon cloud, as if the tangerine had an idea for a cloud, which was later executed by her team.

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