You may have heard, the Boston area is getting much more snow than usual this year. The constant school closures, utter failure of MBTA service and occasional no-driving advisories from the Governor means people are just about overwhelmed with cabin fever this time of year. We’ve had a ton of snow and just not a lot of blue skies.
It is winter though, so some of it’s to be expected. Since moving back to New England, winter’s become probably my favorite season for painting outdoors, and to be honest, getting outside to do something is just a great way to keep your spirits up. Painting keeps me looking forward to more snow rather than dreading it.
As I write this there is a current blizzard warning with potential for thundersnow and hurricane force winds, (edit- the thundersnow happened) so I thought this would be a nice moment to put down some of my thoughts about painting outdoors in the winter. All of the winter paintings in this post are by painters I admire, things that people might find inspiring.
The above is by Frederick Mulhaupt (currently at Vose Galleries). Very well recognized in his day, but he was more known for his port scenes, and I’ve always found beautiful his jewel like frozen Gloucester Harbor paintings. As you can see in the detail above, he was able to sneak a lot of delicate broken color into his snow, making the snow glimmer with light. This is a point worth making- by actually spending the time outdoors, you begin to observe opalescent shifts in color that are imperceivable to a camera lens or even, really through a window.
Painting is difficult, and its a lot more difficult to paint if you are uncomfortable. It’s taken me a few seasons, but I now paint very comfortably even in very cold weather. Here are some thoughts on bits of gear and general advice for painting in the winter that’s made being outside bearable.
Here’s the good news about painting in the cold- clothing these days can keep you very warm, and painting outside today you’re almost certainly going to be more comfortable than artists painting outside at the beginning of the last century (fashion wise, note Fritz Thaulow’s fur lined jacket above- pretty snazzy). The ubiquitous synthetic moisture wicking long underwear these days is miles better than the cotton thermal stuff we wore when I was a kid. Keeps you warmer and much less sweaty.
That said, unfortunately most winter ‘activewear’ is just that- clothing designed to go and be active in the snow- to ski, snowboard, hike, climb, whatever. They are meant to be breathable, and for your body heat to rise as you wear them. They are expressly not made to go stand still for hours and hours in the snow. The good news is that there’s an outdoors activity that does basically the same thing as painters, standing still for hours on end in nature – hunters. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice on gear at stores like Cabela’s or Reny’s up in Maine when I explain that I need stuff to keep me warm standing still : they get it. Incidentally, Reny’s and Cabela’s are two of the cheapest, best quality stores for outdoors gear I’ve come across.
Here’s a list of what’s working for me.
• a Hibbard Mitten is helpful. It’s just a heavy sock on your hand doubled over with a hole in it- that way you stick the brush through and can manipulate it with all your fingers. Here’s a post on Marc’s blog about the Hibbard Mitten. Almost every older painter in New England talks about using them (Nelson White often does a Gammell impression “If you’re going to paint outside in the winter you mustn’t forget your Hibbard Mitten!”), though it’s written about very few places online. The wool sock is a happy compromise for your hand-I can’t paint wearing gloves any more than a guitarist or pianist could play wearing them. I will wear a glove on my left hand, and a hibbard mitten on my right when it’s cold. That said, I work more expeditiously just painting with a bare hand when I can stand it, and that’s often what I do.
• You need good boots. After your hands, your feet are the hardest thing to keep warm. I’ve been using the Sorel Caribous, my feet are very warm with them all day. Timberlands are not gonna cut it, you need something with a fleece or wool liner. Unfortunately, they are huge as moon boots and near impossible to drive a standard transmission car wearing them. But they keep your feet warm.
• I used to wear scarves, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth in the winter, the wind will blow your scarf across your palette, getting paint everywhere. Now I use a tube shaped fleece neck warmer, which I can pull up over my face if it gets really cold.
• Good quality long underwear- I shelled out extra for the ‘cold weather’ rated Under Armour and they’re worth every penny. They’re thicker than the common sort, and really do keep you warmer.
• Windproof pants. I use some lined Columbia snowboard type pants, or flannel lined jeans if it’s not particularly wet out. It’s great if they will tighten at the bottom and tuck into your boots.
• When your boots don’t keep your feet warm, a surface to stand on. I’ve used a panel, cardboard, or even the floor mats from my car keep your feet insulated from the snow. This can really keep the feeling in your feet for another hour, just by separating the bottom of your boots from the snow or ice.
•A good painting hat is key, I use a brimmed one with long earflaps that wrap around my chin. Mine is similar to the one Aldro Hibbard is wearing in the photo below, but with longer brim and flaps. I do not yet have a furry jacket, though I would love one.
The above is a small, quick study of Aldro Hibbard’s for a larger picture. I had the good fortune to see it with the below painting at the Rockport Art Association a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, one image is a bit oversaturated and the other sepia toned, but you get the idea somewhere between the two.
There’s an important rule to remember in the winter- as anyone that’s spent time in a Tuscan kitchen in the winter knows, oils eventually do freeze. Painting at low temperatures, your paints will start to stiffen up noticeably, flowing more like wet sand or dirt than butter. Logic would follow that you need to dip more often in your medium to get the paint to flow, but if you’re out all day, your oil can congeal. This is a problem, especially if your canvas has the smallest amount of moisture on it, the paint just won’t stick to it.
Fortunately, your spirits do not freeze. To keep the paint mobile I remember reading that painters would mix a drop or two of kerosene (not a spirit that we would use these days) into each blob of paint on their palette before going out, lowering the oil to pigment ratio. I’ve tried it, but I find its easier to just keep the paint as is and use a much more diluted medium in the winter (less than one part oil to spirit) and often, I will paint with mineral spirit or turpentine alone. At below freezing temps that will almost work like a medium normally does. If I’m out all day, undiluted oil or my more viscous mediums thicken up until they are nearly useless. Here’s some wisdom from Hibbard himself : “Having previously visited the spot and composed the picture mentally and memorized the impression it made on me as well as possible, I set up the easel… and during the first day make a layout on a large canvas. This is painted very thinly with plenty of turpentine, almost a watercolor technique with colors that approximate the probable final scheme”. That way one can sketch rapidly, and layer thicker paint on once back in the studio.
It’s a good idea to keep a small pliers in your kit in the winter- metal expands when it cools, and it can be really hard to twist a wing nut to close your easel leg at the end of the day. I’ve learned this the hard way.
Isaac Levitan’s ‘March’ is one of the great examples of the variety of contrasts you see in the snow.
Willard Metcalf’s ‘Cornish Hills’
Ideally, in the winter I like to paint on a blue sky, clear day. Not only is it a lot warmer to feel the sun, the patterns of light and shade on the snow create all of the dazzling effects of color in the images above. As you can see, the snow is almost never pure white, but shifting shades of colorful greys. Glare is a big issue on these bright, clear days- and not just for your eyes; the snow reflects intense amounts of light onto your canvas, making your colors appear far brighter in tone than they are. It’s something to be aware of.