10 Breathtaking Natural Cloud and Color Formations


(Part 4 in a 4-Part Series on Elemental Art Featuring Natural Wonders of the World)

Clouds and light produce some of the most stunning yet transient works of Mother Nature: rare formations, brilliant rainbows, sprites and mirages and other gorgeous elemental air imagery. (If you are just joining this earth formations and phenomena series, be sure to catch the other elements for some truly inspiring images and information: incredible earth and land, scorching fire and light and cool water, snow and ice phenomena.)

Cloud Types and Amazing Formations


(Image via Thomas Hawk)

Do you know your cloud types? It starts with altitude (stratus, altostratus, and at the highest level, cirrus and cumulonimbus). But there are varying types of clouds within each “level”, such as the famous low-level vertical cumulus clouds (not the same as cumulonimbus clouds at the higher level). Confused yet? It goes like this: below 6,000 feet, there are stratocumulus, stratus, and cumulus. From 6,000 to 20,000 feet there are altostratus and altocumulus clouds. At 20,000 feet and up there are cirrocumulus, cumulonimbus and cirrus clouds. Of course, if you have ever lain on a grassy patch and spent an afternoon looking for cloud formations resembling animals, objects or people, you know that clouds are beautiful – if ephemeral – artworks of nature. There are a few unusual types of clouds that are less known and eye-catching.

Mammatus Clouds


(Images copyright Jorn Olsen via DarkRoastedBlend)

Named for their resemblance to mammaries (okay, breasts), these oddly bulbous clouds often form after or immediately preceding a tornado, though they cannot be considered an indicator of an impending tornado.


(Images via USRA and metvuw)

According to wikipedia, “ammatus are most often associated with the anvil cloud that extends from a cumulonimbus, but may also be found under altocumulus, altostratus, stratocumulus, and cirrus clouds, as well as contrails and volcanic ash clouds.” Mammatus are literally the bumpy, lumpy underside of many types of clouds.

Lenticular Clouds


(Images via Magazinely)

These disc-shaped clouds have graced mountains, as if they are nature’s version of a snug cap. Yet they also appear singularly and seemingly out of place in blank expanses of sky.


(Images via L.A. Times and ucar)

“Lens” clouds tend to form at much higher altitudes than mammatus clouds and resemble everything from plates to discs to UFO’s.

Light and Air Formations and Phenomena


(Image via kulgen)

The interplay of humidity conditions, sunlight, temperature and the blank canvas of air can create some incredible artistic effects, from sunbeams to the mirages of storybook lore.

Crepuscular Rays


(Images via Wikimedia, BBC and Wikimedia)

Everyone can appreciate the beauty of crepuscular rays, and with good reason: they’re inspiring, uplifting and often simply wondrous. Poets refer to them in their works; artists have tried to recapture them on canvas; a morning with sunbeams is the most cheerful morning of all. Sunbeams, as they’re commonly called (other nicknames are sunbursts, sun rays and Jacob’s Ladder).


(Image via kozyndan)

Crepuscular refers to the hours of dusk and dawn, which is when these optical displays are most likely to appear. Crepuscular rays are often very striking when you seem them under water.



(Images via cplady and dewbow)

First: the famous mirages we watched in cartoons as a child – you know, the ones where a magical oasis appeared to a weary, hot traveler in the desert. More pedestrian are road mirages. They are very common sights, frequently making the asphalt appear to have large pools of collected water. Mirages are optical illusions, caused by light rays bending and creating visible “objects” – which, of course, are subjective. According to wikipedia: “The principal physical cause of a mirage … is refraction rather than reflection. A mirage is a real optical phenomenon that can be captured on camera, since light rays actually are refracted to form the false image at the observer’s location.” In an inferior mirage, light is bent when it passes from cold air to warm air – the heat waves emanating from roads and ground in direct sunlight begin to cool the higher one goes, allowing for mirages to appear both ever out of reach yet planted soundly on terra firma. In a superior mirage the temperature is inversed. Below, see an inferior mirage (top) and a superior mirage time-elapse (lower).


(Images via wikipedia and wikipedia)

Mirages are famously seen in the Great Salt Lake, Mojave Desert, Farralon Islands and many other places around the world.

Colorful Light and Sky Formations


(Images via artfromthesoul and destination360)

Surreal optical displays like aurora borealis, rainbows and light pillars are some of nature’s most thrilling artistic works. It’s simple physics at work, but the beauty is undeniable.



(Images via Daily Mail, wikipedia, wikipedia and National Geographic)

God’s promise. The path to a pot of gold. A symbol of inclusive sexuality. The rainbow has been the stuff of legends and symbolism for millennia, and this brilliant prism of the color spectrum can be seen in everything from garden hose sprays to rainstorms and squalls.


(Image via missourisky)

They’re stunning, yet easy to explain: rays of light refract in molecules of water, causing a prismatic display of the color spectrum. The rainbow is made up of “Roy G. Biv” (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) but the colors are actually a continuum, not distinct “stripes” of separate hues.

Light Pillars


(Images via wikipedia, wikipedia)

Light pillars are optical illusions, similar to mirages and sometimes confused with crepuscular rays. These stunning visages are created by light reflecting off horizontal planar surfaces of ice crystals. Rare, and breathtaking indeed.

Bonus Vintage Highlight: Aurora Borealis


(Images via Hicker Photo, Destination 360 and Science Education)

It’s worth a repeat from elemental light art: the aurora borealis are a surreal combination of unusual air conditions and tempermental physics. There are actually both northern and southern polar lights. Aurora, Latin for “light”, are most commonly seen in the northern hemisphere (”borealis” for northern, as in the Boreal Forest) but are also displayed in the southern hemisphere (”astralis“…think Australia).

(Image via wikipedia)

The aurora borealis displays are colorful and dynamic, but the aurora astralis are remarkable in their own right, seeming to light up the frigid southern polar expanse with their intense vibrance. Watch the slideshow below for more incredible images of nature’s “paintbrush” on the skies.

More Natural Wonders of the World:

15 Elemental Earth Formations and Phenomena
15 Elemental Water, Snow and Ice Formations and Phenomena
12 Elemental Fire and Light Formations and Phenomena