There has been a huge reduction in the amount of air traffic passing over my apartment for several months now. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that recently the blue of the sky looks ‘more blue’, in fact I’m sure I see it as a new, what I call ‘China blue’, i.e. a more beautiful than ever blue, one that is more luminous and yet slightly lighter, paler, subtly inflected with clarity and light in a way that I feel I have never seen before and yes, the clouds that pass through and around that new blue do often seem whiter than ever before too.
And, as I say, why not? After all the amount of airplane exhaust being pumped minute by minute into the sky has been reduced by between 50% and 95% (I would estimate) during recent months, and that is bound to make an optical difference.
Of course, a blue sky represents almost everything that a human being can wish for, a kind of clemency or blessing from the heavens, a climatic benevolence that means everything is OK and we are under no threat.
Furthermore, blue skies have been illustrated in various ways by painters, photographers and movie-makers (amateur and professional) and animators that capture tat benevolence and thereby ‘culture’ the way in which we see the sky and its blue in a way that we can never simply call ‘natural’.
Recently I went through a phase of watching Japanese Anime movies, mostly the famous Studio Ghibli variety, but others too. I started to notice that an intensely beautiful blue sky, with an intensely beautiful billowing, sun-drenched white cloud set against it is a repeating motif in such films, and one that never fails to ‘move’ me, even though I know that it is being conjured by a skilful Anime artist to pull on my heartstrings.
Now, of course, when I see the new China Blue of the post-lockdown sky, I also see it as, and as it were ‘through’ those Anime images. thus, artists do ‘change the world’, if not in creating Utopia overnight then perhaps in tiny incremental ways that might e.g. just subtly change the way in which we see or look at something we have seen a million times before. And as these tiny incremental changes are being changed by millions of artists all over the world all the time, and while their effects are multiplied by the billions of people noticing those tiny changes in their personal optics, we can also say that artists are changing the world a lot more than we might habitually think.
It’s also true of course that, when the Anime artist creates for us a softly billowing, glowing white cloud against an intensely beautiful clear blue sky, they are also influenced by photographs and movies they have seen before, descriptive passages in novels, poetry and the history of painting. Interestingly, the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer seems to have had a certain passion for a certain way of representing the beauty of the sky.
Many other Dutch painters of his time enjoyed painting relatively serene skies to form backdrops to their landscapes and seascapes, but in one particular painting, Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft‘ (painted 1660-61) he seemed to capture that ‘China Blue’ peeking through clouds and that I now seem to be able to see in the sky over my apartment, as if finally catching up with Vermeer’s eyes 400 years later.
Finally, I suppose we should research the provenance or source of this term ‘China Blue’. We know that 17th century Holland traded successfully with China, imported its ceramics and then copied and produced its own ‘China’ immediately recognisable as blue painterly images on white ceramic backgrounds.
Nevertheless, the blue in Dutch (or Chinese) ‘china’ is generally rather deeper and more serious than the wonderfully innocent-looking blue that we have been discussing, and it strikes me that, if the blue of the sky today is anything like that ‘china’ it is in respect of its fragility rather than its hue, i.e. ‘China’ breaks easily, but this imparts a preciousness to it, while pale, lucid, ‘baby’ blue, ‘sky’ blue or China blue is really a kind of frail, pale, innocent, virtuous phenomenon, at least to human beings who equally perceive dark clouds as threatening and grey skies as capable of inducing morose feelings.
If we asked a scientist however, I expect they would refer us to the cosmos and tell us that, when we are blessed with pure, beautiful blue skies we are looking at infinity, at the scale of the universe, illuminated by uninterrupted sunlight which makes the apparent, dark, black/blue of the universe appear, in our local tiny corner of it, pale, bright and benevolent. And so, the China blue sky today could be said, even scientifically, to justifiably reassure me of infinity, and therefore of possibility, and so, there is much hope to be gleaned from that, and much meaning and value to be extracted simply from a single colour.