In this new series, noted painter Joseph McGurl discusses plein air paintings by past masters that he finds instructive or inspiring. This week: Frederic E. Church’s “Clouds Over Olana.” 

This quick sketch by Church is illustrative of not only his working methods but also the philosophy that underlies his art. He was, in a way, as much a geoscientist as he was a painter. His careful examination of the gradation of light upon the different strata of clouds can be seen here. The greater density of gas and dust toward the horizon filters the blue rays, causing the red and yellow rays to predominate the lower portion of the clouds. He maintains a strict distinction between the illuminated portions of the clouds and the shadow areas. This creates the strong sense of form, which is contrasted by the formless cirrus clouds above. In order to give luminosity to the sky, Church adds the dark foreground hilltop with the orange sunlight just barely illuminating his house, Olana.



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