Winter Watercolor : Five Tips for Sub Zero Painting
Over on USK.org they’re doing an article on winter sketching, and they’ve tapped a few northern correspondents for our top tips on winter sketching. Click on over for the full article.
Inspired by the request from our editor Suhita, I check the weather – and it’s zero centigrade today (Dec 13). which is pretty nice considering the forecast has us in for -16’C this weekend. Therefore – today it is! I grab my go-bag and head out for a quick sketch in the snow.
This old stone house house is just up the street from us on the corner of Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery, which aptly translates to: Our Lady of the Snows.
The city has recently removed some old trees and a pesky fence, giving us a better view of the place. It’s my understanding this was the housing provided to the cemetery caretakers. Maybe that’s an urban legend. But it’s certainly in the right location, at the foot of a sweeping hill dotted with tombstones and weeping angels.
This was a quick sketch – around a half hour, maybe 45 minutes. Just long enough for me to think up five tips for winter watercolor!
#1: BOOTS ON THE GROUND:
Your boots are the #1 most important piece of gear. A pair of winter boots you’re comfortable walking in will not be good enough.
Standing still for any length of time sucks the heat through your soles. Look for boots that are too heavy to be comfortable. They should look ridiculous. That’s what you want. Sorrel or Baffin are good brands.
Today at 0’C, I was wearing thick wool socks and waterproof hiking boots. They were only high-top height, so I got snow down the ankles right away. After ten minutes my toes were tingling, and by the end of the painting they were honest-to-god uncomfortable. To the point you start stamping and pacing in circles.
If I’d have planned to do more than one sketch – well, I’d have given up and found a cafe.
If it gets to be -20’C I’ have an ancient pair of Baffin Vanguards inherited from my father. My 30 year old pair are not as uber as the current model, but hey – free is free. It’s overkill for me to own a pair of arctic exploration grade boots I might only wear two or three times a year – but if you want to be out all day and have absolutely no reason to complain – this is the only answer.
#2: LAYERS – AS ABOVE, SO BELOW:
You know you need the flexibility of layers, so you wear a sweater, a hoodie and a winter coat, with a vented waterproof shell on top. (I find under arm zips are a must in a waterproof jacket). But if you don’t match this protection on your legs, you’ll get cold right away.
I recommend silk leggings for moderate cold, or quilted cotton thermal underwear for deep winter, then sweatpants, then a water and wind proof snow pant.
Yes, I am truly the death of fashion. What can I say. Comfort trumps image when it come to successful outdoor painting.
#3: PRY MY BRUSH FROM MY COLD DEAD FINGERS:
I find a bulky glove really interferes with my painting. Sometimes that means I’ll just try to tough it out and let my fingers freeze. But you can only do that for a few minutes at a time, so it’s not a real solution.
You remember these late night winter paintings right? That’s what gloves will do for you. Instant Fauvist painting! You might as well be wearing oven mitts. I like these crazy sketches but totally understand why most people wouldnt :)
Therefore – a new option I’m trying this winter: Freehands Thinsulate gloves.
They’re not the warmest, but they’re snug fitting and flexible – and have a fore-finger and thumb that flips back, with a little magnetic catch to keep the finger-end tucked away. It’s impressive how much just that finger and thumb help with brush dexterity.
I’ve been told, when it gets too cold for even these, to put a knitted mitten or sock over your entire gloved hand, and push the brush handle through the knit. I’ll report back on the validity of this tip in a few weeks.
#4: LOOKING FOR ANSWERS AT THE BOTTOM OF A BOTTLE:
Today, even hovering around 0’C, when the sun went behind the clouds, I was getting ice in my paint box. It interferes with colors flowing, and it sure looked to me like it was hard on my brushes. Lots of bent back hairs.
Even though I hate ‘Five Tips for Bla Bla’ posts that end up being second hand I have to give you Bradely Lance Moore‘s comments about adding alcohol to your watercolor.
Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Artists who add this type of alcohol should use a clear liquid like grain alcohol, vodka or gin. Liquor that’s 64 proof freezes at 10 below zero, (note: I assume he’s talking Fahrenheit) and 84-proof liquor freezes at 30 below zero. Artists sometimes add up to 20 percent of 84-proof liquor to their watercolors.
Last timeI tried this myself I used isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol instead of ethanol. Why? Because I’m not a drinker and there’s no vodka at home. I can report: this does NOT work.
Rubbing alcohol does not mix well with paint, causing all kinds of weird effects – strange bubbling and poor adhesion of pigments. Basically – don’t make this bonehead mistake.
Interestingly though – proper ethanol alcohol also evaporates faster than water. Therefore – you can use it in humid climates (such as Singapore) to make your watercolor dry faster. I wish I had know this last year! Quick. Get me a ticket back to Singapore so I can confirm this!
Bradly goes on to say:
In addition to lowering the freezing point of watercolors, alcohol can act as a wetting agent and, in humid conditions, as a drier.
Finally, if alcohol isn’t for you, adding a touch of glycerin and ox gall can also help keep your colors flowing in freezing conditions.
#5: DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER FOR URBAN SKETCHERS?:
OK, real talk. My dear readers – you probably don’t care about all this winter survival!
Most likely we are going to paint from a coffee shop window looking out at those freezing schmoes stomping home from work.
What I’ve learned from my friend Shari Blaukopf is – probably you should just paint from the car.
The only truly good winter paintings I’ve done have been from the car. It’s just more comfortable. You can take a little more time to do a nice drawing before diving in. And you can take breaks to run the heater. Which, can also help dry your paintings if you hold them up to the fan.
I should mention, studies have shown, too much engine-idling is a serious cause of carbon pollution, and not great for your engine, or your pocket book. So it’s still worth it to wear the layers and gloves inside the car, only running the heat a few minutes at a time.