Why is the sky blue? This is the cliche question that is the rite of passage of parenthood. Before my children were old enough to ask this question I researched the answer in anticipation.
The answer the Internet gave me is:
A clear cloudless day-time sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. When we look towards the sun at sunset, we see red and orange colours because the blue light has been scattered out and away from the line of sight.
This answer anticipates that children may also ask: why is the sky sometimes orange? Or, why is sky sometimes red? But the first question they will ask is: why is the sky blue?
Last Sunday I visited the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry with my family. There were three highlights to the visit, the ‘The Story of Children’s TV’ exhibition, ‘The History of Us’ installation and a George Shaw painting. I am in awe of George Shaw’s work. He paints the ordinary and the mundane. He paints abandoned places which are scenes from his childhood, and he paints them simultaneously devoid and full of life. In addition, he is able to portray atmosphere through colour (using enamel paints normally associated with model planes). This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see a George Shaw painting and I was very excited.
I had a number of thoughts as I looked at this painting: it was smaller than I expected; it was more detailed and intricate than it appeared online; it was shinier than I’d thought it would be; and also, the colours had much more impact in real life and gave the painting much more depth than I had felt from viewing it online.
I spent a lot of time peering closely at the painting, in awe of it (and rather jealous that it wasn’t mine). However, it was the colour of the sky that struck me the most as interesting. The sky in this painting had been painted the colour of weak, milky coffee. It was smooth and deep. In isolation, it was an odd colour to choose for the sky. But as a whole image it worked. To me it said mid-autumn, late afternoon, bitter, cold, blanket of clouds, 1980s, PE, hockey field, mud, cold, hormones, boredom, and breath. I found it hard to stop staring at the painting.
That evening I read my youngest son The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers as his bedtime story. I’ve read this book many times before. Oliver Jeffers is a favourite in our family. We love his books. We love his simple, witty prose and his flat yet atmospheric illustrations. However, on reading this book on that particular evening I noticed for the first time the sky on each page. What I suddenly saw was the amount of different pigments Oliver Jeffers has used in just this one book to depict the sky. The colour scheme he has used goes as follows: light green, blue, white, light blue, purple, dark blue, white, dark blue, black, grey, white, bluey-black, mid-blue, blue, black, yellow, orange, purple, grey, black.
How was it that I had not noticed this before? Nor had my son or my husband spotted this either. I suspect that sky colour had been on my brain after my earlier response to the George Shaw painting. The trick Jeffers employs in The Way Back Home is, ironically and cleverly, to blind the reader with colour change to render the sky simply ‘there’. Now I see the drastic colour scheme, it is all I see when I read that book. However, it still works. I see that he uses this illusion in his other books as well.
The talent both these artists have is to make the colour for the sky, which in isolation might seem quirky or bizarre, appear in a composition as completely natural.
I think that this ability to align atmosphere with colour is one of many potential marks of a clever creative mind. I love colour. I aspire to have that ability.
The next time my children ask me: why is the sky blue? I will ask them a question in answer: is it?