Monday Morning Art School: painting when the sun don’t shine

Changing light, comfort and safety, and keeping your materials workable are big challenges for bad weather
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas, Cape Elizabeth Paint for Preservation

I’ve had great luck with weather this year, but that isn’t always the case. Last year I did an event in a cold rain that lasted from the opening bell until the jurying was complete, at which time the sun came back out. Mother Nature may forego the rain and sulk instead. Fog is beautiful but the flat dull light of an overcast sky is a challenge to love. Organizers may sympathize, but they can’t magically change the parameters of a plein air event. The show must go on.

Outside of events, painters have the luxury of staying home when they aren’t inspired. I don’t recommend it. There are exciting atmospheric effects that take place in bad weather, and if you aren’t there, you won’t see them. Nor will you know how to cope if you suddenly find yourself in a downpour when it really matters.
Storm Clouds (pastel), by Carol L. Douglas
There are three issues involved in painting in lousy weather.
  • Changing lighting conditions.
  • Your material’s stability;
  • Your personal comfort and safety;

Changing and imperfect light is one of the principle arguments for doing preparatory sketches. This weekend, I painted a dramatically back-lit rock for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust’s Paint for Preservation. I only had about four hours a day when these lighting conditions were true, and they weren’t true on the second day at all, because it was overcast. At the same time, I needed to include the tide, which advances almost an hour a day.
I’d done a fairly careful sketch in advance and was able to refer to it when in doubt. I repeated that process on the canvas when I started painting. Some people think underpainting is a substitute for an initial value sketch on paper. The problem, however, is that you cover up the evidence when you paint. Without my sketch as my guide, I doubt I would have retained the rigor of my initial idea.
Painting in the residue of a hurricane with Brad Marshall. (Courtesy Rye Art Center)
Watercolors and pastel are very difficult to manage in a downpour, even when they’re out of the direct rain. Paper and chalk both become saturated with moisture, making control impossible. The only solution I know is to work from inside your car. Acrylics actually benefit from higher humidity, but sideways mist and rain will make them run off the canvas too.
Remember learning that oil and water don’t mix? Instead, they form a sludgy emulsion that’s impossible to paint with. Oil paint won’t stick on a damp surface. Since the pigment is in suspension in the linseed oil, it can bleed off with water droplets. Shake loose water off and pour off any that ends up on your palette. Don’t blot.
Oil paint doesn’t freeze, however, making it great for winter painting.
Storm Clouds over Lake Huron was painted in the direct rain in a terrific downpour. The paint emulsified, but sometimes you just have to capture the scene.
With any media, you should avoid letting your canvas get wet from the back. Gesso expands and contracts with moisture changes. Copious rain will destabilize canvas and warp boards.
This spring, Ellen Joyce Trayer brought a bag full of knitted cowls along to my Age of Sailworkshop. She handed them out to anyone on the boat who wanted one. I was an immediate convert. They warm your neck without adding bulk. A general rule of dress: you are coldest when standing or sitting still, so bring more clothes.
Massed thunderheads are beautiful and transient but put away your lightning rod (easel) and get off your mountain long before the storm hits. Lightning strikes on both the leading and trailing edges of thunderstorms. Even if the sky directly over your head is clear, you’re at risk of a strike when you can hear thunder. Far better to get inside your car and record the pyrotechnics with gouache.
I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.