Sunday, January 17, 2010

Plein air in the Winter? Are you Kidding?

I love painting outdoors in the winter. There is a certain hush that lays upon the snow covered earth that is not evident at any other time of year. The air is clean, fresh and beckoning. Whether sunny or overcast, a snow laden landscape offers exciting natural abstract shapes and color contrasts, and for those who love to paint the subtle variations of white it cannot be surpassed. Winter is an exciting and fascinating season to capture on canvas.
Of course, you always have the option of painting from inside your car where you have all the comforts of home, ie: heat, music, etc. However, you'll miss the sound of snow, the quality of the air and the space around you that is so beautiful at this time of year.
When I encourage students to try winter plein air it's not the subject but the cold that receives negative responses like, "...are you kidding? You paint in your car, right?" It's usually the gals, who tend to wear fashion outer clothing not designed for standing in cold temperatures for hours, who are my most vocal skeptics. The answer then to enjoying outdoor painting lies not in a lack of enthusiasm for winter but a lack of knowledge in how to dress properly for comfort and warmth.
When I go out to paint I don't worry about pretty...I worry about warmth. If it's 32 degrees I layer my clothing for at least "0" degree weather. When you're standing still for a long period of time the cold will seep in so over-dressing makes sense. Below are the layers I use.


Layer #1: Long underwear and liner socks made of silks reduces bulk and wick moisture away from the body.

Layer #2: Warm pants or those lined w/ flannel plus a turtle neck cotton top and 1 pair of wool socks.

Layer #3: Lightweight wool sweater or velour top that buttons down the front so it can be opened if the body becomes overheated.

Layer #4: Quilted, button down the front, outdoor vest with a stand up neck collar.


Warm coat that covers the fanny and has deep pockets

2 pairs of stretchy gloves (buy in any store for 99 cents a pair). Doubled up these are thin and do not hamper finger movement or brush holding but keep the fingers warm.

Warm hat with ear flaps and a small brim to keep sky light out of eyes.

Wool scarf worn tied around neck and crossed over the chest under the coat.

Boots with felt liners that are designed for 20 degrees below zero or better. This is not the time for fashion or shoeboots. Cold feet will send you home faster than anything.


Warmers available in sporting goods departments or stores. A pair of hand warmers (one for each pocket), one pair foot warmers for inside the boots, and 1 body warmer which sticks to the back of long underwear just below the neckline where the body loses most of its heat.

This may seem like a lot of clothing but today's miracle fabrics keep the bulk to a minimum and the body wicked and warm. If the hands get chilled simply put them in a coat pocket with a hand warmer for a few minutes and they'll be toasty and good to go again in short order.

If possible, I usually set up somewhere close to my car where I keep a thermos of hot tea and one of chicken noodle soup for my lunch available. Their warmth tastes mighty good and warms me up inside if all else fails and I get chilled. However, dressed this way, I'm good to go for a number of hours.


I've found that I can easily paint outdoors with my oils in weather as cold as 10 degrees above zero. If it becomes stiff I add a touch of Liquin to my paints as I mix them. In this way, my paint is just a little juicier than when applied in the studio. The paint stays workable long enough that I am able to adjust edges throughout the length of the painting session. I know other artists who add a small drop of extra linseed oil to the piles of paint on the palette prior to mixing.

This seems like a lot of clothing but it really isn't and it holds your comfort level for a long time. If you have ideas on dressing for cold weather painting or how to control the viscosity of oils please feel free to offer your suggestions.

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