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Winter Watercolor : Five Tips for Sub Zero Painting

December 20, 2016

Over on 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!



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan Garcia permalink
    December 20, 2016 6:51 PM

    It may have been challenging, but I love the sketch, and the suggestions are terrific, but I will stick to the car!

  2. yvonne permalink
    December 20, 2016 7:12 PM

    Thank u for these very informative hints! I didn’t know the differences in how alcohols work with paint. We finally just thawed today in our part of Oregon. Stay warm, Merry Christmas to you! Yvonne

  3. December 20, 2016 8:56 PM

    I had already seen the article this morning. I like your tips. Luckily it doesn’t get quite that cold here. Now I feel like a wimp sitting in my car when it is barely freezing. lol I think I like my alcohol in my drinks rather than in my pen…but I have had the water freeze so it is a possible solution. Happy painting!

  4. Diana Jackson permalink
    December 20, 2016 9:08 PM

    Brrrrr. This is why I go to Tucson in the winter. Now we are cold when the temperature is under 60 in the day. I lived in upstate New york growing up, and I well remember the cold feet, even though encased in galoshes. I commend your continuing sketching in the frigid weather!

  5. December 20, 2016 9:26 PM

    I’ve tried sketching in freezing weather and concur–sketching from the car is the best solution. You are so dedicated– thanks for trying out the old fashioned way–insulated from head to feet :)
    Another tip–be sure your exhaust pipe for the car is not covered with snow. Carbon monoxide can leak into the car if the exhaust pipe is not adequately vented. Crank the window a bit when running the heater when the car is not in motion.

  6. December 20, 2016 9:40 PM

    My question and concern is the problem with washes drying. I usually will work on multiple paintings and wait for one to dry to go back to it or I take it back to the studio. I usually work on dry paper but when you are dealing with a sky and having to paint tree branches in, how does that work out when it is so cold that your surface isn’t dry to the touch? I don’t live in super cold country like you do but I do venture up where it gets in the low temps 15-20 something. I usually take my pastels and leave the watercolors at home because of the problem with drying. Your paintings look wonderful, I am kind of excited though I don’t have much experience with taking them out when it is winter. Wonderful post by the way!

    • December 20, 2016 10:30 PM

      Yes, it’s quite a pain, watercolor not drying in the cold. You might notice in a lot of my sketches (if it’s something done quickly on location) I will often leave the sky white. I started it just because I like the look of a lot of white space – but on the other hand it helps when you want to put some branches or roof top antennas or over the sky. As well, I try to use as little water as possible when it’s humid, or cold. But yes, sometimes you have no choice but to go inside and dry it – either the car heater, or a hand dryer in a washroom. (Watch out for how powerful the air blast is tho).

      • December 20, 2016 10:49 PM

        thank you for your comments, it really helps. :) I’ll give it a go because I miss taking my watercolors out and about.

  7. December 20, 2016 10:33 PM

    Another thoroughly fascinating and delightful post Marc! and man, all I can say is, am I glad I live in California!

  8. December 20, 2016 10:42 PM

    You are so encouraging and the paintings are beautiful. Its not so cold here on Whidbey Island, so I might get out there on a 40 degree day, but my fingers freeze fast. Have you heard of heated gloves or every tried some?

    • December 21, 2016 12:19 AM

      I haven’t tried them, but they sell them – they have a pocket for the chemical heaters!

  9. MARYLIN SMITH permalink
    December 20, 2016 11:39 PM

    Thank you Marc for sharing ( I stumbled on your site thru Liz Steel) I love your work!!!
    I live in the tropics so my problem is to slow my drying time rather than speed it up…. I went to Kazakhstan about 10 yrs ago and took summer sandals that had cork insoles and some covered shoes for winter. When winter arrived I put the cork insoles into the covered shoes … I found that very helpful for keeping my feet warm…and woolen socks of course!

  10. December 21, 2016 4:58 AM

    You are one brave man. In spite of the weather, you continue to turn out great paintings.

    We lived in Grand Forks, ND for 13 long , cold years. It is about one hour from the Canadian border. 30 below was typical for winters .(there were some warmer times) I can just feel the cold as you describe it. Bundling up as I did-walking the dogs was as long as I wanted to be out. My husband loved photography and I could barely stop long enough while he took pictures–could never paint that way. Don’t know how you did it. But thanks for this post–it is amazing.

  11. December 21, 2016 8:33 AM

    Marc, fighting the elements like you do is not for me anymore. Formerly from Michigan, now living in the Austin, TX area we rarely have snow…ice sometimes but not snow. When sketching I can use a little imagineering and visualize snow here in central Texas but it is unnatural. It does get cold here usually in the early morning then warms up during the day. Sitting in a coffee shop or car is always an option for some days.

  12. December 21, 2016 8:55 AM

    I have never been into doing any type of art. However I really love and enjoy looking at great art:) Your paintings are so beautiful!

  13. Cynthia Clarke permalink
    December 21, 2016 11:45 AM

    Hi Marc, I’m from Alberta so your comments and suggestions really hit home. I enjoy plein aire painting but haven’t ventured out in winter, yet.
    After seeing your paintings, I think I might try it as I need to loosen up anyway and the weather is starting to warm up…. a bit. I really enjoy your blogs and love your style of painting.

  14. December 22, 2016 3:28 PM

    From my experience, a heavy piece of cardboard to stand on helps keep the cold away from the soles of your boots. My Mom was a practical knitter of mittens..she would ask what we needed them for, shooting rabbits, driving a team of horses or galloping around on a pony then she singled out the needed finger and knitted the rest of the fingers into a mitts. The rifle shooting ones worked best for outdoor painting. Merry Christmas

  15. Babs TwoDove permalink
    December 23, 2016 3:00 AM

    Thoroughly love your work, whether it is quick or you take your time. Love your compositions and placement on the paper. Can’t imagine going out to paint even in 50 above (here in Southern California that is considered rather cold.) But I admire those that do.

  16. December 23, 2016 3:01 AM

    Thank you from sunny California :) I’d FREEZE there interesting to read

  17. Margaret Hunt permalink
    January 1, 2017 12:46 PM

    Reblogged this on Margaret McCarthy Hunt Art.

  18. January 4, 2017 8:47 AM

    I put “toe warmers” inside of my boots when I have to stay out long. I bought them at Canadian Tire. They work well for me.

  19. November 28, 2017 9:57 AM

    Your headline caught my eye as I was thinking what would be five tips for journalists in the freezing cold and one of them is to use pencil as pens actually freeze.


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