The Art of Looking at the Sky

Finding wonder in the world overhead

Christopher P Jones
7 min readSep 29

Moonrise (1884) by Stanisław Masłowski. Oil on canvas. 124 × 220 cm. National Museum of Poland, Kraków, Poland. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The sky above us takes up a vast portion of our visible world, yet how often do we look at it closely?

Lift your eyes above the trees and rooftops, and you will see a domain of fleeting episodes and perpetual revisions, a forever evolving picture of light, shadow, colour and form.

In short, the sky is a feast for the eyes — and artists have done much to encourage us to take more notice.

In a culture that is determined to measure everything, to pin it down and contain it, the sky teaches us that some things lie beyond our grasp.

Left image: Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (c.1842) by J. M. W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 91 × 122 cm. Tate Britain, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons. Right image: Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) by J. M. W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 91 × 122 cm. Tate Britain, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

One artist who understood this well was J. M. W. Turner, who in the 19th century captured the sky in all its most terrifying and placid states. He was especially intent on painting the effects of sunlight as it interacted with rain or mist. For Turner, it was the very ephemerality of the sky that gave rise to a challenge to record it — to memorialise it.

These dramatic images may give the impression of extraordinary encounters. Indeed, there’s a story that Turner once had himself tied and bound to the mast of a ship in order to experience firsthand the feel of a storm crashing down from the sky.

But in every sky, dramatic or not, there’s value in taking the time to look.

Space that sees (1992) by James Turrell. Grey and white concrete, limestone, fluorescent light with dimmers. 700 × 1000 × 1000 cm. Israel Museum Jerusalem. Image source Wikimedia Commons

I recently learned of the contemporary artist James Turrell, who makes this point well in his “Skyspace” artworks. Born in California in the 1940s, Turrell came to prominence in the 70s with a series of enclosed architectural spaces containing a simple aperture in the roof, isolating a defined portion of the sky for contemplation.

Visitors sit beneath the roof opening and look up. It’s the same sky that was above them when they were outside — except that this time a frame has been put around it. The viewer’s attention is seized by this cropped perspective.