What Color Is the Sky?


Sky Gazing

Nina MacLaughlin’s six-part series on the sky will run every Wednesday for the next several weeks. 

Paul Signac, View of Saint-Tropez, 1896

Sky blue. Please picture it. Put a swath of sky blue in your mind. Just for a moment. Sky blue. Close your eyes. You see it. Now, look out the window, up and out to your sky. I wonder, what color do you see? Does it match the color your mind projected? In the room where I sit now, in my apartment on the first floor, in the small Northeastern city where I live, a little after eight in the morning, sun slants across the dusk-orange couch and the brown blanket slung on the back of it. The windowpanes repeat themselves in shadow, elongated squares over the dark red rug. From behind the roofline horizon, dish towel light seeps through a tangled net of branches. What little sky I can see is not so much color as light. Looking at it, I wonder, if I didn’t know what color the sky typically was, would I call it blue? I see a blue-ish-ness, a graywhiteblue glow, but is that only because I already know the sky is blue? How much of what we see is because we think we already know what’s there? What would I call this color if I saw it on a piece of cloth? And you—how much is the way I see you limited by the words we have been taught for each other?

What color is the sky?

Robin’s egg. Peach. Opal. Purple. Baby-hair blond as my brother’s was. Garnet. Lavender. Turmeric. Charcoal. Periwinkle. Dirt road. Yarrow. Powder. Bruise. Rice. Absinthe. Piss. Shadow. Mussel shell. Ash. Blood clot. Clementine. Pistachio. Mauve. Faun. Inner thigh. Midnight. Cantaloupe. Underblanket. Honey. Olive. Orgasm. Peppermint. Raisin. Sapphire like the wedding ring my mother wore, a thin band of tiny flat sapphires so dark it looked black, but off her finger, where always it is now, marriage done, held up in the light, deep dark blue. Heather. Smoke. Yolk. Bone. Baseball. Candle. Creamsicle. Lichen. Lilac. Bile. Black silk. Hawk eye. Camouflage. Amaranth. Lamb. Is vacancy a color? Is absence a color? If you try to think of nothing, does it have a color?

In Clarice Lispector’s second novel, The Chandelier, the narrator makes figures out of clay she collects from the bank of a river. She makes all sorts of figures and shapes. “She could make anything that existed and anything that did not!” Except for the sky. With the sky, “she couldn’t even start. She didn’t want clouds—which she could obtain at least crudely—but the sky, the sky itself, with its inexistence, loose color, lack of color.” The sentence drifts off. The period occurs, but the sentence, the thought, dissipates, passes, becomes nothing, doesn’t quite complete itself but is also totally complete. What a thing Lispector does, to re-create the sky in a sentence about not being able to make the sky.

The lack of color of the sky—when I try to think of this, my brain offers me the inside and outside of a clamshell, the grays, whites, violets, golds, creams, smooths, not a color but a quality. Or a deep, dense white.

Deep white like when an airplane moves through clouds. I like to sit by the window when I am on an airplane. When else can you look at the earth like this? When else can you look at the sky like this? But I do not like to look when the thick white cloud consumes the plane. In those moments, I look at a book or close my eyes and hold my good luck rock. The deep white frightens me; there’s no way to orient. How close or far are we from anything? Everything too close, and yet we are in the infinite, there’s no beginning or end to anything. In that whiteness, there are no edges.

In his short essay “A Piece of Chalk,” G. K. Chesterton writes, “White is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black.” For Chesterton, white is not an absence of color just as “mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.” Our plain and positive star burning ninety-three million miles away lets us see, allows us the experience of color, color, “this infinitude,” as Dingeman Kuilman has it, “which we sooner feel than understand.” And if we look too long at the plain and positive star, our star that lets us see, if we aim our eyes right at it, we’re told as children, it can burn us into blindness, it can strip away our vision. If it weren’t true, we’d make a myth of it. The fable of looking too long at the sun. Look too long at the thing that brings vision, and it takes away your vision.

The paintings of Pisanello “instilled in me the desire to forfeit everything except my sense of vision,” writes W. G. Sebald in Vertigo. An endorsement for a work of art if ever there was one. He goes on to write of visiting Pisanello’s Saint George painting in a church in Verona, and the way sections of it have fallen into disrepair, disintegrated into nothing: “The vacancy into which the fragment dissolves still conveys something of the terror” that those dealing with the dragon would’ve felt. There is horror in the emptiness, horror in the fading into nothing. This dissolving into vacancy, into inexistence, into the dimensionless white of the clouds, provokes a singular sort of fear; our composure comes under threat. To look too long at the sun risks blindness. What of looking too long, thinking too long, of the sky?

How are we to deal with its inexistence? How are we to wrestle with its not-ness while we, here on the surface of the earth, pulse with our boned and wet-gutted presence? We can list colors. We can give shape to cloud—look, a wizard on the move; look, a white wolf; look, a volcano, a demon, a seahorse, an elephant, an infant, Jerry Garcia. The narrator in Lispector’s novel, trying to make the sky out of clay, “discovered that she needed to use lighter materials that couldn’t be so much as touched, felt, perhaps only seen, who knows.” Who knows!

The sky is blue. Oh? Look at it again. It might be that this morning or this afternoon, your sky is blue. Sky blue. But the sky holds all the colors, the whole infinitude, more sensed than understood. And yet, we agree, the sky is blue. It’s safer this way, to have things we know. What color are roses? Red! What color is the sky? Blue! It’s safer because if something can be everything at once, and perhaps not exist at all, it can snag at the threads—the loose threads—that hold us together. A bicycle seat doesn’t hold all the colors. It isn’t more than one thing at once. The sky is blue. The ocean is blue. I look at you. I see you as consistent day to day. The sky is blue. I look at you and see the things I expect to see from knowing you for all the days I’ve known you. I am seeing what I expect to see. There might be no blue in the sky. But I’ll see blue because that’s what I know the sky to be. Its essence is blue.

But it isn’t.

Its essence is absence. Its essence is all the colors. What do I miss by seeing you the way I expect to see you? The way that is safe? What do I not see in my own self? Watching the sunset of my own self? What do I not see because I expect to see the things that I’ve come to live with every single day of my life, just as I live with the sky every single day of my life? What absence do I miss? What colors?

The sky is blue! We need to put our feet on something solid. We need to rest our minds on something solid. The sky is not solid. We cannot rest anything on it.

All the colors exist in the sky. It holds all the colors, and none. Your own list of colors of the sky could have as many words as mine, more, a whole different accumulation of hues, the sky will take them all, has space for all of them. They are all correct, and none of them get close, not any of the words. This is a strange thing about the sky.

And there’s a strange thing about our days right now. The carbonation of our interaction has been flattened, the fizz and bubble of our social lives stilled, and we are left to drop into something quieter. Time takes on an unusual ooze and instants get denatured. What’s on offer now (always) is contact with a purer existence, not in any moral way, but the opportunity to observe the texture of one moment moving to the next, the same way one might watch the sky move itself across the surface of a puddle by the curb after it has rained.

Stomp the puddle. The sky explodes. One thousand droplets fly, the sky reflected in each one, spinning. Tiny globes of water leap up for a moment, showing the sky to itself, before showering down, smooth, soon to be reabsorbed into the still surface from which they came. Does it seem familiar? A plain and positive thing, sooner felt than understood, which one has either seen or not seen.

In this stillness, we drop through the surface of the sky, we sink into our minds, through the memories, the fantasies, the sticky cupboards of shame, the locked boxes of pain, we keep going, down down down, until we tumble off the cliff into our unremembered inexistence. Clamshell? Blood clot? Amaranth? Lamb? What color is it there? No one has ever told us.


Read Nina MacLaughlin’s series on Summer SolsticeDawn, and November

Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, MassachusettsHer most recent book is Summer Solstice