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The invisible power of wind
Arts & Activities, April, 2006 by Guy Hubbard

For many centuries in Europe, people were not interested in pictures of the outdoors so weather didn't play a very important part in art. Picture buyers began to want pictures of outdoor scenes about 500 years ago, so artists started to paint them. The best ones were produced by artists who went outdoors to draw and paint what they saw around them. And, while many people preferred outdoor paintings that showed bright sunny days, artists learned that pictures of the outdoors often looked better if they some times included the clouds, rain and the effects of wind.

One difficulty artists faced with wind was that it cannot be seen. We can only see the effects of wind. It bends grass and tree branches and blows fire-smoke. It also blows the surface of water into ripples and waves. Strong winds and gales are usually linked with storm clouds and rain to produce very dramatic scenes, where trees bend over and may break while people lean into the wind so as not to be blown over. Some of the fiercest winds occur at sea and result in giant waves that can sink ships or blow them onto rocks.

Popular subjects for pictures where wind played an important part were scenes that included boats. For thousands of years, boats could only be moved through the water with oars or paddles. The invention of masts and sails changed that, however, and proud owners enjoyed pictures of their boats with billowing sails driving the vessels through sunlit waves.

People who lived by the sea or made their livings from ships also knew that the sea had many moods. When there was no wind at all, for example, the surface of the water becomes perfectly calm, boats stop moving, their sails hang down limply and everything is peaceful. In contrast, pictures of stormy weather might show boats straggling to survive in gale-force winds and enormous waves. Still, other pictures might be of shipwrecks.

For centuries, adventure stories have been written about violent storms, especially at sea, some of which are true while others were imagined. In the past, it was left to artists and writers to record occasions when stormy weather altered the course of history.

Two such events include the failure in the 13th century by the Mongols when they tried to invade Japan. The invaders were defeated by unexpected storms at sea. Another was the Spanish Armada that set out to invade England in the 16th century. The English won the battle, but the Spanish fleet was defeated more by storms that sank many of the ships and drowned thousands of soldiers.

Today, painters rarely make pictures about extreme weather. That task is usually left either to news cameramen who capture scenes of hurricanes and tornadoes when they destroy entire communities or motion-picture producers who include storms in their pictures.

If students have never considered including the effects of wind in their art work they should be encouraged to do so. Wind can add action to pictures and make them more interesting to look at. Bending trees, blowing grass, slanting rain and people leaning against the wind can add curves and angles to a composition and help give it a feeling of motion and excitement.

Boats, for example, look more interesting when heeling over at an angle in a breeze than sitting upright. And, they become even more interesting when rolling around in large waves. Moreover, high drama can be added to an otherwise uninteresting painting by the presence of wind-swept storm clouds that create unusual lighting and shadows.

In order to be able to include these kinds of images in their art, however, students need to know what riley look like. If at all possible, they should observe the effects of wind on objects they see so they can use it in their own work. If they also draw sketches, it will help them remember what they saw. The English painter, J.M.W. Turner, was so determined to experience stormy weather at sea to help with his painting that he had himself tied to the mast of a boat and taken out in a storm. He was never so frightened in his life, but the experience taught him how to capture the enormous power of wind and waves as few artists have ever done.

If it is not possible for students to study windy conditions firsthand then teachers should show them reproductions of artworks that illustrate the effects of various kinds of wind on plants, people and water. Alternatively, students may search for themselves among interesting paintings and photographs in school libraries or on the World Wide Web.

Making photocopies or printouts of what they find will help them later when they want to use these ideas in their own work. The illustrations with this article provide a starting point by showing how three artists from different times in history and from different parts of the world made wind a central part of pictures, each one of which is created in its own unique style.

Not least, students may reread vivid descriptions about windy conditions in adventure stories and poetry that create pictures in their imaginations. These images may then become the source of pictorial interpretations of wind.

Including the effects of wind may be a valuable source for student artists to help enrich their individual expression, not only by showing a stronger understanding of objects by learning to draw unusual views of them but in adding visual interest to their work through the introduction of more interesting lines, shapes and colors. The inclusion of wind and weather in their art will also help students learn more about the forces of Nature that play such an important part in all their lives.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (French; 1796-1875). Gust of Wind, 19th century. @ Alexander Burkatovski/CORBIS.

COROT WORKED AT A TIME WHEN FRENCH ARTISTS WERE discovering the quiet beauties of the countryside. He spent much of his life outdoors traveling from place to place to remain close to his sources of inspiration. Corot's landscapes have a gentle, almost dreamlike mystery to them that makes his work easily recognizable. As in most of his paintings this one avoids sharp edges and details in favor of soft, muted areas of color. His only recognition of human beings in this painting is the figure of a peasant woman carrying a bundle on her back with her skirt blown by the sudden gust of wind.

When looking at Corot's paintings the best way to think about them is that they are like visual poetry that focuses on feelings produced using simple shapes filled with varied mixtures of colors. Works by other artists, in contrast, are often more like visual descriptions where the focus is on telling viewers exactly what a place looks like rather than what it feels like.

This painting conveys a threatening, gloomy feeling about a rather ordinary country scene. The leaden-colored sky darkens everything on the ground and reduces most of the colors to shades of gray-green. As a result the trees become close to silhouettes against the dull sky. The only relief lies in the pink seen in the sky at the upper right and the woman's red hat. In this otherwise featureless landscape, action is shown by the effects of a gust of wind from the right that briefly passes through. Attention is focused on the trees in the middle of the picture where thin branches and foliage are whipped about sharply. Thicker, heavier branches are also being blown but are not moving as much.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese; 1797-1858). Oban Yoki-e, from the Series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, 1833-34. @ Christie's Images/CORBIS.

HIROSHIGE WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PRINTMAKERS OF Japan and took pleasure in portraying the lives of people and well-known places. This wood-block print shows a section of an important route taken by travelers, the Tokaido Road. At the time, nearly 200 years ago, it was mainly used by people traveling on foot.

This view shows part of the road that spans a flat marshy area and was constructed on raised pathways and low bridges. The artist probably chose to feature the wind prominently because the area had a reputation for windiness.

To make the most of his message, Hiroshige shows everything that is flexible reacting to the wind in its own way. The marsh grass bends to make gentle, repetitive curves. Away from the wind, the thinner, leafy branches of the tree wave gently while those facing the wind bend back on themselves. Interestingly, the rigid trunk of the tree leans into the wind as if it had grown that way to keep its balance, although the artist may have drawn it that way to help the composition.

The figures add a final touch to the breezy message. Like the tree, the cloak worn by the figure on the right presses tightly against his body as he leans into the wind while blowing out behind him like a flag. The other traveler carrying a heavy load adds a touch of humor having lost his hat and is chasing after it.

Willem van de Velde the Younger (Dutch; 1633-1707). Three Ships in a Gale, 1673. @ National Gallery Collection, London; By kind permission of the Trustees of the National Gallery/CORBIS.

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