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.