Quebec Spring : Subzero Plein Air
Every year, around this time, a group of die-hard plein air painters gather in the town of Les Eboulements, about an hour east of Quebec city.
The paint-out has been going on for upwards of 40 years, bringing serious outdoor painters from all around Quebec and Ontario. This year I was fortunate to be invited, and jumped at the opportunity.
It was an honor to paint with these experienced artists, each of them demonstrating the hard earned skills of a lifetime of painting on location. A highlight of the event was the nightly rounds going from room to room seeing what each painter brought home from the day.
These artists bring with them a direct continuity with the region’s history – painters like Bruno Côté and René Richard who made Charlevoix famous. I heard stories of ‘the good old days’ when there would be over 60 painters coming and going in this small Quebec town, from as early as January, working in weather as cold as -30.
This week, there are still 10-15 foot snowdrifts in some areas, but the high was around 0c/32f. You can withstand that long enough to paint if you have some serious boots and thermal underclothes. I had read Stapleton Kearns’ article on proper painting boots a while back. It’s good advice.
I knew however, that it would be impossible to paint with my usual watercolors. They simply won’t dry on the page at this temperature, making it hard to get sharp edges or deeper shadows. People have suggested the trick of painting with alcohol instead of water – but I can’t seem to make it work. So I reached back to something I tried out first in 2009. Painting on location with oils and a palette knife.
I think the watercolor concepts I rely on – working larger-to-smaller, seeing the large shapes of the design, and thinking about injecting color variation, translated well into oil paint.
It was quite fun to layer on the rich pigment:) It’s the exact opposite of transparent watercolor. I’m not in the least bit sure why this is a ‘natural’ way for me to paint in oil, but it certainly feels right. Possibly it’s the pace at which you can work that feels similar. (About 45 minutes a painting). I’m starting with a 1″ knife for the under painting, stepping down to a ‘butter knife size’ and finishing with a needle pointed detail knife. Much like the #14>#6>#1 rounds that I might use normally.
As much as I enjoy this technique, this was just a brief infidelity. I will be returning to watercolor for the summer. We have trips planned to Italy, Singapore and Cambodia and Prince Edward Island, and I think it’s simply too difficult to bring wet oil paintings back from these far flung locales. So the knives will go back into the drawer until next winter. Unless I get a chance to do some more with it in the studio. The oil is seductive. But I must be disciplined! There is only so much time to paint, and I have to stay in training for sketching workshops this summer :)
Still. That is so juicy. Tasty looking no? We’ll see what happens with this over the coming year!