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  • Writer's pictureMonique Sliedrecht

Clouds from Both Sides

I've been thinking about clouds lately.

The space and expanse of sky was one of the first things that that struck me when I first arrived in the far north of Scotland 20 years ago. It was a sweeping wilderness. And rather than feel uncomfortable and exposed, I felt safe and at peace. In a grey moment, one might think that there is nothing of interest to look at with this open and mostly treeless landscape, but the drama of the weather can change that within minutes.

If there is one thing Caithness can be known for it is its cloud scapes.

They are particularly impressive in autumn and winter.

Here are a couple of photos from a few days ago:


The last two years have resulted in quite a change of lifestyle for many of us. Before the pandemic and lockdowns, I travelled often. Now, having to stay put, I realise how often it was!

Up in the air, I would look from my small cabin window to the clouds below - the light might be rising over them in the early morning as we were about to make our descent into Edinburgh from Toronto, creating a snowlike vista.

Or I would observe the tops of mountains or whitecaps of the sea through the vapourous veil.

That place above the clouds was a space for dreaming, part of a transition from whence I came to where I was going.


I’ve been on the other side of the clouds for the last two years, not having travelled by plane at all in that time, not to mention only seeing my family through the digital cloud. It has made me realise the blessing that physical travel is.

It has also shown me how good it can be to stay in one place, to be able to watch the clouds drift by with two feet on the ground.


Often, on the windier, wintry days, the clouds move swiftly across the skies, creating a sense of drama and anticipation.

I think back to childhood and those summery days of lying in fields or sitting in a canoe on a north Ontario lake, drifting and looking up at the sky, seeing pictures in the clouds.

Whoever I was with, we would often see the same shapes or images, or something completely different. The first lines of the song by Joni Mitchell come to mind:

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I looked at clouds that way …

Renoir's 'The Gust of Wind' portrays the perfect kind of weather for such hazy, lazy days:

Or Van Gogh's 'Wheat Field With Cypresses'...

Not to mention Monet's Poppy Field, Argenteuil (1875).

Clouds were a popular theme with the impressionist painters, especially on summer days!


Reflecting further on paintings of clouds by artists, one English painter that immediately comes to mind is Constable. His oil paintings show a remarkable understanding of the structure and movement of clouds. Most also give a strong impression of their three-dimensional volume. Here is a beautiful cloud study he did in 1822:

And this one in 1821:

Here is another - a painting that is much more expressionist in feel:

This drawing of clouds by DaVinci is very different to that of Constable, but this has the same degree of expressionism in it:

For the painters of Renaissance and Baroque periods, clouds had a practical and symbolic function. Literally, they brought forth the gods of ancient mythology, and gave the angels of Christianity something to sit on. (Think of all those cherubs and cherubims!)

El Greco, the Spanish Renaissance painter, portrayed the darker side of clouds, with all the necessary drama and intrigue, in his painting, View of Toledo.


Jumping forward to more recent art history, I am struck by the remote and northern feeling of Canadian painter, Lawren Harris's, clouds over Lake Superior:


Finally, here is a contemporary take in this cloud installation by Dutch artist, Berndnaut Smilde, which he is most known for. 'Nimbus' is a project that creates hyper-realistic miniature clouds in unique spaces such as museums, factories, castles, and dungeons.


Today there is an expansive blanket of cloud covering the sky, providing a canopy and diffusing the sunlight that is trying to push through, rather unsuccessfully. I anticipate whatever new sky scape is to come. Ever changeable, whether seen from above or below, I realise I really don't know clouds at all.

Both Sides, Now

by Joni Mitchell

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I looked at clouds that way …

But now they only block the sun

They rain and they snow on everyone

So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It's cloud illusions I recall

I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels

The dizzy dancing way that you feel

As every fairy tale comes real

I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show

And you leave 'em laughing when you go

And if you care, don't let them know

Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now

From give and take and still somehow

It's love's illusions that I recall

I really don't know love

Really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say, "I love you" right out loud

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds

I've looked at life that way

Oh, but now old friends they're acting strange

And they shake their heads and they tell me that I've changed

Well something's lost, but something's gained

In living every day

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

It's life's illusions that I recall

I really don't know life

I really don't know life at all

To listen to the original studio version of the song, go to:

For a lovely short film about clouds in art by Chairman of European Paintings Keith Christiansen from the MET Museum in New York, click here:

Some more photos of clouds in the north of Scotland:

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