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Discover art in the skies with 'The Cloud Collectors Handbook'

May 28, 2011 |  8:00 am

Most of us can recall a sunny, carefree day in our childhood watching animal-shaped clouds pass by, our curiosity piqued. As adults, our fascination wanes, but every so often we pause and glance upward, and a fresco in the sky appears as if nature and science had collaborated and created a fleeting masterpiece.

 "I think they are glorious, nature's abstract art," said Gavin Pretor-Pinney, from his home in Somerset, England. The author of "The Cloud Collector's Handbook," (Chronicle, $14.95). Pretor-Pinney has always found clouds intriguing and considered himself an enthusiastic amateur before founding the Cloud Appreciation Society in 2004, which has grown to include aficionados in 88 countries, including the U.S.

HaloCloud The book features 150 color images by members of the U.K.- based society and contains a checklist to  create a compilation of clouds. Individual formations are given a set value when spotted. They are assigned points from the basic cirrus (high clouds made of ice crystals) to the rare Kelvin-Helmholtz, which appears as enormous rows of stark white waves cresting on the shore.

 Equally impressive is the cumulonimbus, or king of clouds, which depicts an ominous, Armageddon-like sky and can grow more than 10 miles high. "The American stereotype to the weather is the dramatic type, the storm chasers, the terrible tornadoes that dominate everyone's vision of weather," said Pretor-Pinney. "They forget about the little, everyday things."

Although the text details the science behind each known cloud formation, the manifesto of the 26,500-member society states: "...Clouds are nature's poetry...expressions of the atmosphere's moods...;" "They have an ephemeral quality about them," said Pretor-Pinney, who fancies the subtle pileus cloud. "I like it because it has a shape; it looks like something, a hat atop a bad toupee."

One might liken cloud formations to performance art, as the beauty can be found in the dynamic process. Some configurations last only a few minutes and can be captured in a deft photograph before dissipating with the shearing wind. "Stop for a moment, take it in, have a moment of meditation and let it go," said Pretor-Pinney, who is also co-founder and creative director of The Idler magazine. "It's a hippie-type thing."


What of the notion that the meteorological descriptions detract from the otherworldliness of the atmospheric works of art?

 "The romantic poet Keats once argued that by explaining the optics and prismatic colors, [Isaac Newton] destroyed the magic and beauty of the rainbow. I disagree with that," Pretor-Pinney said. "Understanding the world around us increases our focus and appreciation."

-- Liesl Bradner


Photographs, from top: Rare Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds. Credit:  Giselle Goloy.

Halo cloud. Credit:  Sitthivet Santikarn.

Altocumulus lenticularis stacked in pile d'assiettes formation. Credit: Ryan Verwest.

All images from Chronicle Books