Cloud Study: Horizon of Trees, oil on paper laid on board, 1821

'I have done a good deal of skying'  

– John Constable

The overall title for all of the windmill projects that I have conceived is skying, adopted from the term that John Constable used for his studies of the sky and weather effects. The word seems helpful for its air of purposefully not attempting the definitive form of objects, but seeking rather to look into the blue – allowing for all shades of grey, bog-cotton white, or indeed purple, seeing as my study locations include Northumberland, Scoraig and Orkney.

This is then a gazing beyond, and that farther horizon extends beyond renewable energy and technology, to embrace the sky, wind, kinetic effects and colour theory.


Eppleton turbine; Alexander Maris, 2008


One of the challenges that the windmill tower presents us with is its very verticality.

How can we respond to this intrusion, thrusting as it does beyond the human scale of the earth, beyond even our natural scale, trees. How can we take in this piercing of the sky, that poetic ever-changing element of dream and election, without perceiving it as an invasion.

Up until now, a studied strategy of hiding seems to define the wind industry's approach to turbine colouration. As if something so sleekly aerobic and architecturally eminent could ever be dissolved into invisibility. As if the mediocrity of the single colour – RAL 7035 – an uncontroversial greyness, that has become favoured nationwide, would lead society to not notice these intrusive towers.

The following body of work gives some examples of 'skying' and colouration. It is offered as the beginning of a wider investigation whether colour can ameliorate the thrust of technology into the air.

sky-wheel (I) 

Like the Xylotheque or Luke Howard's Beaufort Scale, the colour-wheel is an example of the wider Enlightenment project, to define types and categorize values. As with those precedents, its primary purpose is to allow comparison to be made between related elements; to measure, to evaluate, to sift and thence to archive.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, cynanometer

The Swiss physicist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure – founder of alpinism,  and therefore no stranger to the sky – devised a sky measure, naming it the cyanometer. 

This version is a replica, recreated by the German artist Sebastien Gräfe, who explained that the cyanometer was originally used to 'measure the amount of water vapour in the sky through a scale of 52 different types of blue.'

Gräfe recognises how: 'In this era of digital instruments, the cyanometer, with all possibilities of subjective usage – which in our days simply means failure - has of course lost it's importance.' He speaks of a desire to encourage skying 'as a form of "deceleration", a metaphor for reclaiming the freedom to "take your time".

This is then an obsolete instrument that has become a perfect addition to our aids to leisure. [link] 


The cyanometer belongs to the same broad era as Howard's studies of clouds, which in turn influenced Constable's skying. Howard's analysis of cloud was honoured by Goethe, and it also inspired Shelley to attempt his own poetic definitions of the newly named cloud types, in 'The Cloud'. 

cloud, photograph by John Askew, 2007 

Cloud, after Shelley, after Howard







cloud, photograph by John Askew, 2007 

Sky-Wheel (II)

sky-wheel (colour specification)
Alec Finlay with Jack Lowe (2007-08)

'Have you ever noticed that a section of the sky seen through a vent or between two chimneys or two rocks, or through an arcade, gives a more profound idea of the infinite than a great panorama seen from a mountaintop.'

 – Charles Baudelaire, Lettres

My own sky-wheel, made in collaboration with Jack Lowe, was devised without any knowledge of the cyanometer – another example of the habit artists have of inventing something that had already itself been invented, even, in some cases, discarded. 

This sky-wheel is a record of the colour of the sky, representative of a coastal location in North East England. It is, as Sebastian's work reminds us, a work that appears to be scientific but is in fact entirely subjective.

While the sky-wheel does not meet any scientific criteria, I collaborated with Jack Lowe precisely because he is the foremost colour expert I know. His role was as a mediator, between the technology of the digital camera, which produced the sky samples we used, and the technology of the digital ink-jet printer, which produced the final artwork. You can read about Jack's memory of the year-long process of making the work here

The project deliberately followed a wave-shaped process: from my own subjective concept, through technology, then passing back into subjectivity, as a process of image selection was enacted, and then finally passing through a mechanical process of production. 

One of its possible applications I had in mind was as a sampler for sky-camouflage designs for windmill turbines, a speculative concept that I developed during my residency with NaREC (New and Renewable Energy Centre, Blyth).

Goethe's colour wheel

The circular design of the sky-wheel was, of course, adapted from Goethe's colour wheel – another illustrious Enlightenment project, combining Newtonian physics and colour aesthetics – which illustrates how primary, secondary and tertiary colours interact and combine. 

Colour-wheel, in progress; Alec Finlay with Jack Lowe (2007-08)

The outer ring of the sky-wheel records a colour for every day, specified from a digital photograph of the sky. The camera is in a fixed position on the roof of NaREC (Blyth), pointing directly overhead and taking photographs at four hourly intervals during daylight hours. The calendar ran from midsummer day 2007 to midsummer eve 2008.

The outer ring shows the 365 days.

The second ring records a colour for every week; an amalgam of the seven colours for the individual days during this time period.

The third ring records a colour for every month; an amalgam of the four colours for the individual weeks during this time period.

The penultimate ring records a colour for each season; an amalgam of the three colours for the individual months during this time period.

The inner circle of the sky-wheel is a composite colour representing the entire year; this was created by amalgamating every other colour specification that appears in the colour wheel.

I summarised the project in this credo.


a perfect flat surface
specifying a single sky sample

a sky patch at a moment
within an hour on a day

a part of a part of a part
a mean portion of a framed extract

a colour wheel reading
day, week, month, season, year

a sample of time and light
colour and atmosphere

a complete revolution of the year
Midsummer to Midsummer


poem (Uist), Alec Finlay; photograph, Luke Allan

To the Gael the winds are traditionally identified with these colours.

the crimson East wind
the grey West Wind
the white South wind
the black North wind

RAL: windmill turbine colour 

Lowestoft, photograph by Susan Maris, 2008 

Nowadays, most windmill turbines on the British Isles are painted RAL grey 7035

coloured wind-tower, Necton
Photograph by Alexander Maris, 2008

This green banding is sometimes used, usually where a flat landscape, such as the East Anglian ‘orison’, encourages the eye to keep a low trajectory.

 (c) Windside Production Ltd

To the best of my knowledge the first and only windmill manufacturer to use colour as an active creative element is windside (of Finland), who manufacture Savonious. Based on their experience as a producer, they realized that many of the turbines that they sold were being sited in civic spaces, such as parks, museums or schools, where they played a dual role, producing energy and representing the symbolism of ‘green’ thinking.

Once these highly designed objects are thought of as, in effect civic sculptures, or works of public art, then it is an obvious step to colour them. 


During my NaREC residency I also made some speculative designs for windmill turbine camouflage, using conventional and dazzle style patterns. 

sky camouflage for a windmill turbine
Alec Finlay, 2008

sky camouflage for a windmill turbine
Alec Finlay, 2008

dazzle camouflage for a windmill turbine
Alec Finlay, 2008

Current research into wind energy suggests that RAL grey and white coloured turbines may be responsible for some wildlife mortality, with a suggestion that purple might be more beneficial, in terms of how birds see. [link]


Tim Newark, Camouflage, introduction by Jonathan Miller (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007)

John E. Thornes, 'Constable's Meteorological Understanding and his Painting of Skies', in Constable's Clouds (Edinburgh: Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2000)

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe,Theory of Colours, trans. Charles L. Eastlake (NY: Dover Publications, 2006)


Jack Lowe

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