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July 2016, vol 12 no 2

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Charles Tarlton

John Constable's Seascape Study: Boat and Sky

The sky too belongs to the Landscape. The ocean of air in which we live and move, in which the bolt of heaven is forged, and the fructifying rain condensed, can never be to the zealous Naturalist a subject of tame and unfeeling contemplation . . .
                - Luke Howard


Anyone who ever contemplated clouds knows that they move. No static observation can conclude the clouds in this or that formation (look up and it’s gone); the pillows of vapor swell and stretch; long, thin fingers of white reach out, are captured on the wind and spun, like fine thread out of coarse wool, across the sky. A mountain, a volcano (!) of constantly changing shapes rises up, and in the highest regions wisps of white are blown along in the wind, like feathers, then like dust, and then just nothing.

edges of clouds
their scatterings of white
very like the surf
froths white in the bright sunlight
foam at the top of the swash

it doesn’t reallyv
look like the sky or the sea
except that we are
willing to squint the mind’s eye
see and not see all at once

it doesn’t matter
whether we know what it is
what the subject is
because it is a painting
of the painter painting


This picture tempts the witness with its seditious display, not just of clouds and sea, but marks of brush and pallet knife. White lead spread like decorative frosting on the edges of everything, and not just artfully, but done defiantly: “I dare you to say this is not the sea, not the edges of wild stratus clouds!” Every patch of paint is visible as paint; every line traces itself. Seascape Study bares the rudiments of painting, the painter’s presence is made stark; it is, come on and say it – gestural.

brushes spread a fan
each trail of bristles at the toe
running out of paint
you feel the reach of the arm
arcs of fleeting paint swishing

impatient and at odds
with nature, looking under
the dark horizon
the sky is wild, the paper
showing through, calls us, Wake up!

seen action lingers
in the seeing, images
persist between
your retina and your brain
a thaumatrope spinning


You can see the roughness from afar; it is a painterly exposé. Now, normally, we understand that painting is an illusion; that we need to stand back to see the figures and the setting. Listen to Joshua Reynolds talking about the sometimes lack of refinement in Gainsborough’s painting.

However, it is certain, that all those odd scratches and marks which . . . this uncouth and shapeless appearance, by a kind of magic, at a certain distance assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places . . .. That Gainsborough himself considered this peculiarity in his manner and the power it possesses of exciting surprise as a beauty in his works, I think may be inferred from the eager desire which we know he always expressed, that his pictures at the exhibition should be seen near, as well as at a distance.

Constable’s Seascape Study blows the gaffe on figuration and depiction, even trompe-oreille, and forces the viewer to make the painting, to him what it’s like to make the painting. Near or far, Constable’s “odd scratches and marks” are the painting, all of it.

at the best of times
painted clouds merely suggest
clouds we had once seen
across an expanse of ocean
in the prairie distant

Catch sight of a painting across the gallery and slowly approach it until your nose all but touches it, all the time watching the barn or tree or wondrous tower disappearing.

what a painter paints
is not the grain barge floating
in a tranquil river
but a million little beads
of paint, all over themselves

Note: Seascape Study: Boat and Story Sky can be viewed online here.