Monday Morning Art School: Baby, it’s Cold Outside!

Winter’s lack of light might deter the painter, but normal winter temperatures ought not.

Snowstorm at 12 Corners, by Carol L. Douglas. Long since gone to its permanent home.

My nurse-practitioner mother always insisted that one couldn’t get a cold from being cold—after all, it’s a virus. How, then, can I account for my dripping nose and general malaise, when I haven’t been in contact with strangers of my own species in weeks? I have been outdoors for extended periods, and it’s been nippy.

Occasionally, people will tell me, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” I’m from Buffalo, so I know that’s malarkey. But proper gear does help. Winter’s lack of light might deter the painter, but normal winter weather ought not.

Winter storm, 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s generally as big as I work in bad weather.

The most important part of your body to insulate is your feet. Painting is the only outdoor activity I know where you stand in one place in the snow for long periods. That’s far chillier than walking or skiing. A piece of old carpeting or cardboard on the ground will help. Always wear insulated boots and wool socks. Yes, you’ll waddle, but agility isn’t the issue here; insulation is.

I wear nitrile-palm fishing gloves to paint. They’re warm enough for all but the worst days, when I add a chemical hand warmer on the backs of my hands. Dress in layers, as you would for any winter activity. Ladies, that should include long johns (call them Cuddl Duds if it makes you feel better). This year, you can also wear a balaclava (a ski mask to the uninitiated) without shame, even to the bank.

Haybales in winter, by Carol L. Douglas. See those chunks? That’s what happens when you paint below 0° F in oils.

You might think the sun is a summer problem, but it can be blinding in the dead of winter. It never bothers to get over the yardarm in December in Maine, which means it’s often thwacking me right in the eyes. A painting umbrella helps now, more than it ever does in summer. If you have any skin showing, use sunscreen.

I regularly store my palettes outdoors in wintertime. Assuming I can find them, I can pull them out of the snowdrift and start painting immediately. In the summer, I move my palettes to a freezer. Most home freezers are set at about 0° F, so the paint is very chilled but not actually frozen. The cold temperatures slow down oxidation, which makes the paint stay open longer.

Winter, pastel, Carol L. Douglas. If you stick with pastel, you won’t have material-handling issues in winter, except that chalks are tough to handle with bulky gloves.

Oil paints in linseed oil binder won’t freeze until they reach -4° F (or -20° C). They will thicken slightly as you approach their freezing point; just increase the amount of solvent and they’ll move again. If it gets much colder than that, however, you’ll end up with chunky paint.

At that point, only an insane person or someone trying to prove a point would stay outside and squidge paint around. You’re more likely to snap your easel in extreme cold than you are to come up with anything good. I’m speaking from experience here.

If you use watercolor, you can add grain-alcohol, vodka or gin as antifreeze. A good rule of thumb is that you can add up to 20% booze to your paints before they get tipsy. But not all pigments can handle their liquor. Be prepared for excess paper staining, or different precipitation rates than you’re used to with plain water.

With any medium, you’re unlikely to have precise control of your brushes when you’re bundled up and your hands are in gloves. Work loose and don’t sweat the details.

Why paint that?

My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go make masterpieces on your own.
Ken, by Carol L. Douglas. Modern clothing can be so difficult to paint attractively.
Yesterday I was leaving a meeting and a friend asked, conversationally, what I’d taught in class that morning. “Drapery,” I answered.
She paused. “Drapery? Why?”
She’s a musician herself. Had I had been thinking, I could have told her, “It’s like doing voice exercises. It may seem pointless to the outsider, but it’s a technical exercise on which other skills are based.”
I prefer to teach outdoors, but there are days that’s impractical. It’s 7° F right now and by tonight it will be raining. There will be a stiff wind out of the southwest, with gusts up to 30 mph. It’s one thing to put on my insulated boiler-suit and snow boots and go paint in bad weather, but quite a different thing to ask a student to do it, or for us to have an intelligent conversation in the midst of a storm. For those working in water-media, winter conditions are particularly difficult to manage.
Reading, by Carol L. Douglas. Michelle may be beautiful, but how about that sheepskin?
If there was nothing to learn indoors, I’d tell my students to just stay home on weeks like this, but a good painter should be able to paint whatever is thrown in front of him or her. That’s the virtue and fascination of January’s annual Strada Easel Challenge, where artists are encouraged to paint daily for 31 days. If you’re on Instagram, follow #stradaeasel.
Sometimes these daily exercises have great emotional depth. Yesterday, Julie Riker painted an old-fashioned electric percolator. It evoked an instant emotional memoryof the sort made famous by Marcel Proust and his tea-soaked madeleines in Ă€ la recherche du temps perdu. I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s house. 
Those percolators made darker, more-complex coffee than modern drip machines, and it smelled heavenly in the early morning before I headed off to school. We would have to wait patiently as it gurgled through its final rigamarole. There were no timers on coffeemakers back then.
Waiting, by Carol L. Douglas. The coat over a chair is a motif of our age.
Julie may have been just painting an old percolator, but it touched a chord in me. In this case the subject was the key, but it wouldn’t have evoked without great skill in rendering the chrome surface and the awkward power cord. You can’t really call yourself an artist unless you can take any object in front of you and arrange it into a pleasing pattern.
How does knowing how to paint draped fabric make you a better landscape painter? Of course, fabric might make it into your landscape art. More importantly, there’s a specific kind of skill required in rendering fabric. It’s very low in contrast, and often dull in color, and its variations are subtle.
And then, one day, you get the opportunity to paint a silk and gold mantilla in a commission, and, bam!
Drapery plays peek-a-boo with forms, whether it’s reefed to a spar or thrown over a chair or over the shoulder of a portly man striding through the airport. Studying it is an exercise in the lost-and-found line that is at the heart of the mystery of painting, that elevates it above photography.
My job as a teacher is not to drive and correct my students into creating a perfect result in my classes. If you sign up for that, you’re going to be very disappointed. My goal is to give you a process—a series of steps and techniques—that you can use to go on and make masterpieces on your own. If I succeed in that, my mission is complete.