Yesterday, Richard Woods of Sparks, Nevada wrote, “I’m just heading out painting at a location where snow is a good possibility. The forecast calls for a high of 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Painting in cold weather is a pain for me. I see pictures of you working while sitting in snow banks and at high elevations with snow coming down. How do you do it?”
Thanks, Richard. With forethought. The main problems are wind, precipitation, and the temperature of things.
Wind: You may need to sacrifice a really good view to put your back to the wind. I often paint in a folding chair, so an extra chunk of foam on the chair-back is useful. Also, one of those fur-lined helmets with the flaps helps prevent an early loss of ears. Parkas or hoodies tend to interfere with head movements and the business of looking over your shoulder for bears. Fur-lined hiking boots are a must. “There is no bad weather for painting en plein air,” says Barbara Jablonski, “only bad painting clothes.”
Teach yourself to paint using leather or wool gloves. I used to cut the fingertips off, but it’s only necessary if you’re doing finicky work. Regular gloves or even mitts can help make your stroke broader and fresher.
Precipitation: Whether straight down or sideways, snow, sleet or rain are fun-spoilers. Wet snow falling and puddling on acrylic or watercolour has only limited creative value. Oil and water, of course, don’t mix. Best Brellas are simply brilliant on calm, sunny days — but in a gale they can move you and your work a mile down the valley.
Warmth: “Scottish antifreeze” from a small flask is best. Cocoa from a thermos works but is less fun. Some ladies of my acquaintance put chemical warmers called Heatmax Hot Hands and Heatmax Toasti Toes into needy areas. I like to point out that Scotch taken orally in moderation warms all over.
Some painters report the main benefit of sub-zero painting is the achievement of speed. But there’s also a wonderful feeling of smugness that slips over you like a soft woollen blanket. Whether an island unto yourself or together with a gaggle of good companions, you’re adrift and apart from a madding world and in soft communion with wonder.
PS: “Working outdoors puts you in direct contact with the life force, not just the light and the landscape, but also the vitality of the world.” (George Carlson)
Esoterica: Acrylics and watercolours freeze easily and take on an unpleasant granular texture which stays on after they thaw. Keep all your paints, including oils, in a warm part of the car and don’t leave them in a car overnight. Liquids like acrylic medium and linseed oil should be near to room temperature for best viscosity. The Russians have pioneered thinning watercolours with vodka. When ice begins to form on the palette it may seem like the time to reconsider chartered accountancy, but really it’s just time for the lodge. Tomorrow will be another day.
Vodka in watercolours
by Colin Bell, Calgary, AB, Canada
In cold weather watercolours and vodka really works. I’ve painted in -10 degree C weather using a diluted 50% solution of vodka. I was able to paint, but noted ice crystallization occurring on the paper until the moisture had dried. Pure rubbing alcohol does not dissolve the paint, and so is useless. For sub-zero temperatures, I would recommend an undiluted vodka application.
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Painting in horrid conditions
by John A. Scott, Traverse City, MI, USA
I remember doing some small watercolor paintings in the Gallatin Canyon of Montana and in Yellowstone in sub freezing weather. I worked fast but the freezing crystals in the washes made for some unusual results. I worked standing up since there was no place to sit that would not have been an ass-freezing experience. Working small was a good idea, but see Tony Foster’s work — he paints huge watercolours in the most horrid conditions with great aplomb. His book Painting at the Edge of the World is stunning.
Important to be uncomfortable
by Brent Lynch, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Yep, Amen to all that! I just wanted to add that, to me, a big part of outdoor painting is to be uncomfortable. What I mean is that the experience gets us out of our comfort zone. That’s where things become interesting. Winter is the ultimate ‘comfort zone removal experience.’ Preparing for it is serious business. The artist is now beyond painting… and has the opportunity to enter or re-enter the very slip stream that birthed us. It’s good for the ego.
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by Laurel McBrine, Toronto, ON, Canada
This post immediately teleported me back to our Bugaboo mountain adventure. At one point I was painting in a wet snowstorm while holding an umbrella with one hand and my brush with the other. It is very amusing to admit the odd and fleeting thought of smug superiority over all those wimpy artists ensconced in their cozy studios, engendering a rare sense of rugged outdoorsmanship. Having said that, I haven’t painted in such inclement weather since, although the sun, bugs, wind and sand have played their part. After reading your poetic description of the pleasures of being “adrift and apart from a madding world and in soft communion with wonder” I just may venture out this winter using some of your wardrobe advice!
(RG note) Thanks, Laurel. Laurel was with us last year when the weather was indeed a bit of a challenge. This last September we had perfect weather and even at very high altitudes it was not that cold. We’re going once more to Heli-paint the Bugaboos in September 2012. If you’re interested in talking about the possibility of joining us, you might give me a call at 604 538 9197. Dennis Fairbairn, who has been with us on both previous ventures, says, “After Heli-painting, what is there?”
Go south young man
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
This certainly brings back some bad old memories; when I was a budding landscape painter in the Boston area I tried everything. I had clothes suitable for the Antarctic. I tried those chemical warmers and even bought electric socks. Nothing really worked for me. I never got used to painting with gloves, fingertips or not. Opening the tubes was a particular problem and I ended up with as much paint on the gloves and consequently my polar jacket as on the canvas. I am a profound lover of whiskey and almost any excuse will do. I would never want to disparage the beneficial qualities of a good shot but, I am afraid that when painting in subfreezing conditions it brings temporary relief but eventually thins the blood and makes you even colder.
My solution: I moved to the South of France. I occasionally go to Chamonix to paint the snow, the mountains, Mont Blanc. The best spot is from a big picture window near a roaring fire. I wish the very best to those who are hardier than I.
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Sub zero tips
by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada
Amen to needing the proper garments and lined boots as you mention when going out to paint in winter, and learning to paint with full finger and warmly lined gloves! I treasure a pair of rabbit skin gloves with the fur side in, found at the Salvation Army for 50 cents because they had broken seam threads, easily mended; soft and supple. In addition, I recommend working standing up, because you move around more and keep your blood flowing better — especially if you keep warm by dancing back and forward to look at your work from a distance, dancing forward for sword-like brush-thrusts, and then back again to check their effect and determine where to make the next plunges. I stand on a piece of insulating board while in front of my easel, so I am standing on a surface that does not suck the heat from my feet. My first one was made of Ten-Test; my current one is Homosote board, that grey stuff that looks like it’s made of paper maché. If it is very wet, I use a piece of wafer board as Homosote would probably disintegrate — but usually cold means frozen ground. It probably helps to work in dry cold, but that wasn’t what the man expected.
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Built-in gas heater in a VW Bus
by Bob Rennie, White Rock, BC, Canada
With regard to winter painting, I have a 1985 VW Westfalia camper. It won’t get you everywhere, but often to a good enough location and with plenty of room inside to paint. Besides it also has a gas powered heater that keeps you warm without running the motor. You really can find lots to paint on location without being outside. And you certainly can combine outside painting with doing some work in the van.
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Won’t do it, don’t want to
by Sheila Psaledas, ME, USA
I must be a total “wuss,” because I don’t paint in cold weather outside. Well, I sort of do, but it’s in the comfort of my Yukon SUV. I get to a location, set up an easel with a seat in the back of my vehicle so that I can sit while painting. The windows have a tint that can change colors, but I poke my head out of the back to adjust here and there. The car heater keeps me warm so I turn off the engine and use the available heat for about 1/2 hour at a time, and then restart it when the temperature is uncomfortable for me. I know this is perhaps viewed by some as not really plein air, but I’m still on location and painting. I do take photos of my subject when I arrive and often make adjustments at the studio.
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by Pamela Simpson Lussier, Willington, CT, USA
Painting outside in winter is awesome. You get all dressed up like you did as a little kid to go sledding. For me it has that same little kid excitement. It’s important not to let your feet get cold. My husband, David Lussier, and I use mukluks. We can put many layers of socks in them but have never needed more than 2 layers — one of the layers being a ski-type sock. I use neoprene diving gloves. They are great as long as you don’t get snow in them. David likes his painting hand gloveless but puts a warmer in his pocket. Long underwear is a must. David has a nice Carhart one-piece snow suit and I prefer layers with a large down jacket that goes almost to my knees. And hats, sometimes I have 3 hats, whatever it takes. One of them is a mask to go over my face.
The white oil paint gets a little gummy in the cold but you can add a few drops of kerosene to it; that usually works. Also, sometimes it is good to bring a mat or cardboard to go under you. This can keep you warmer and helps your easel to not sink into the soft snow.
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Applying the KISS principle
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
I cannot say enough about plein air painting. Sometimes I feel that working in the studio is kind of stale because I just am not stimulated the same as when I work out-of-doors. I know I am going to have to get over that but it really is hard to beat. Plein air painting has taught me a lot of lessons, in matters of painting and proper gear. For me the KISS principle works best, I try to really minimize the painting gear I take with me and almost always paint with a knife and a limited palette. I seem to have more time in the winter to paint so I dress very warmly in an insulated jacket and coveralls with a good pair of Ski-doo boots. I have a beaver skin hat that works great to keep the block heater toasty. I like the idea of Scotch; it also fits with the upcoming Xmas season, good cheer and all. If it is quite cold (I won’t venture out if it is lower than 20 degrees C) I keep my oil paints inside my jacket. I kind of like how the paints get a bit stiffer in the cold and I am very fond of the immediacy of working out-of-doors. It is kind of like a sickness but I love it!
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It’s all about work
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
There’s so much that can be said as to outdoor wear and your desire to paint in situ in wintertime. I’ve worked on Svalbard in April during a polar bear filming expedition, only a hop, skip & jump away from the North Pole. Also, in winter in Murmansk, Russia and in northern Sweden and Norway. Sometimes I had the luxury of a nearby car or cabin, or a café within hiking distance. Once, while painting the snowy coast on the Dutch north coast I escaped into a church during service to get out of a winter squall. Simply getting out of the wind can feel like entering the pearly gates of Heaven!
Some comfort is indeed necessary — depending on whom you are, your stamina and blood circulation. The winter wind is the killer. Do what you can to keep out of the wind. A good Canadian coat (I got one in Newfoundland last year) and wool cap or soviet-style fur-lined cap are great. Hoods in April on Svalbard were out of the question because of polar bears roaming on padded feet, but may well serve to keep the wind out of your ears.
I prefer to be on my feet when painting. It’s better for your circulation, you can step away from the easel, do a jig to warm your feet or escape to hide from the wind behind a tree trunk or pill-box (as I once did during plein air work in a WW II battleground). I used to take my skates when painting near a frozen lake, and do a round or two to warm up during or after painting sessions. My dog hated it, but scrabbled after me on the ice. I have often used my van as a studio, but being cooped up and in a cramped position isn’t always good for working, because I need to move around, look at both subject and painting from different angles. On a calm winter day I might paint from the roof of my van if I feel I need a higher vantage point.
Sketching in oils can be a drag if it’s minus 30-35º centigrade. Oils get somewhat “short’ and more difficult to manipulate. Watercolour is a no-no in sub-zero conditions. (Acrylics always a no-no because I don’t like the way they dry on canvas.) I prefer to do simple: pencil on paper, rush inside if possible to dab on some watercolour, but if really taken I’ll get out my oils. Hogshair brushes, of course, a few drops of medium mixed with white spirits, and I’m off!
Somehow, it’s intensely gratifying to succeed at a drawing or painting (mind, I’m not suggesting doing Great Art) under difficult conditions. It has much to do with being out in the open, and managing against all odds, and fighting the feeling you’ll never grab that what inspires, never enough at any rate. Also, it is at such moments that painting comes closest to what I consider Work — because how can sitting in a heated studio in a comfy chair, with hot cocoa by your elbow, good music on the stereo and photographs to work from be considered work?
Enjoy the past comments below for Out in the cold…
Calm Before the Storm
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Suszanne Droney of Huntington Beach, CA, USA, who, among others, asked, “What’s your favorite brand of Scotch that you would recommend? We have friends we would like to impress with the good stuff, but don’t have the slightest clue which brand to choose. Since I so appreciate receiving your Twice-Weekly letters with your wonderfully written insights, etc., I’m counting on you for a recommendation on the Scotch thing. I have little doubt that you would give poor advice.”
(RG note) Thanks, Suszanne. I’m not an expert, but Aberdour is a fine, reliable single malt, hot, cold or neat. I’m also flirting with Glenmorangie from Tain in the Highlands. Also Bowmore from Islay is an excellent dark single finished off in Sherry casks giving it nice legs and a cute little skirt. Incidentally, several authoritative figures wrote to say that drinking anything alcoholic to fight the cold is not a good idea.