The Fullness of Skies

In the artist J.M.W. Turner’s painting titled “The Fighting ‘Téméraire’ tugged to her last Berth to be broken up,” the canvas is dominated by a watercolor sunset in shades of yellow, orange, and red. The sunset spills out, large and diffuse, over the sky in Turner’s painting and draws the reader’s eye over the right side of the canvas, to the midpoint horizon line between sky and sea, and to the small pale orange sun holding court for one last moment before it, presumably, will fade from view. The sunset continues on into a reflection in the water, a wash of color carrying to the lower edge of the painting. Despite the painstaking level of detail Turner has poured into the ships on the left side of the painting, it is the sun to which a viewer’s eyes go to again and again. It is beautiful, and haunting in a way that the broken ship going to its last berth fails to be.

But the painting isn’t just beautiful. Apparently, it can also teach scientists about the level of air pollution in Turner’s day and what kind of aerosols filled the air, giving that sunset its glorious color. Studying hundreds of paintings done by Turner and others between the years 1500 and 2000, a team of scientists has been able to estimate the levels of volcanic ash or desert dust in the air based on the coloring of all those famously painted sunsets. The ratio of red to green coloring in a painting’s sunset is said to be particularly telling, as ash causes sunlight to scatter and appear more reddish as a result.

And so I am staring at the sky, looking for the scattering of sunlight over the houses and trees, what play of color it will make across the horizon. But there is no color in my sky today. Today I am looking at only a vaguely grey sky, empty of birds. The wet tree limbs look nearly black against it, bare of all except the faintest beginnings of buds. It is newly spring here, though snow still holds a tenuous grasp on the hilly embankment across the street from my house.

I have been staring at the spring sky, and the rain pattering on the asphalt for twenty minutes or so, imagining a painting made of this sky, imagining that painting examined a hundred years from now.  What would that painting tell those future people about what kind of citizens or stewards of the earth that we had been? What does this particular shade of grey indicate?  Will it mean anything to anyone other than me to see this sky, to feel the ache of empty that the missing birds bring?

I want to stamp this sky into forever, this sky and all the other skies I have been given. All skies are to me a kind of gift; the gift of waking again each morning, the gift of a new chance, the gift of a today to be better, to try harder, to love more fiercely, to listen more carefully. To be silent and amazed and thankful. Each sky is a gift of all this. Each sky can just as easily both fill and break your heart. This is what I see in Turner’s painting, an orange and gold heart, so full it is bursting. A heart running over and spilling down the canvas, all the way to its very edge and beyond.


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