There’s a limit to winter painting

Candlemas Day, 1901, Marianne Stokes, 1901, Tate Britain. Note the extremely cool shadows on the face.

To old-timers-by which I mean people hundreds of years older than me-tomorrow is Candlemas. This is the official end of the season of Christmastide and one of the oldest dates on the Liturgical Calendar. Pennsylvania Dutch celebrated Candlemas as Dachstag, or Badger Day. That comes down to us as Groundhog Day.

Candlemas was gussied up by saying it celebrated the Presentation at the Temple, but the simple truth is that February is a desperate time in northern climes. A festival of lights seemed perfect. (Our medieval ancestors had around 60 holy days a year, compared to 11 Federal holidays for modern Americans. We’re doing something wrong.)

Georges de la Tour was the master of paintings of candelight. Magdalene with Two Flames, c. 1640, Metropolitan Museum of Art

It doesn’t matter if the groundhog sees his shadow

Candlemas marks the midpoint of winter. There have been seven weeks since the winter solstice, and there will be seven more weeks until the vernal equinox. That’s set in the orbit of the earth. It doesn’t matter what the groundhog sees.

Nevertheless, some parts of the country will have warming temperatures long before the vernal equinox. Here in the northern tier of the country, the chill won’t depart until the end of March.

My friend Eric Jacobsen was out painting yesterday, the daft bugger. “I would join you,” I told him, “except that I don’t have my truck this week.” Yeah, right.

Eric Jacobsen’s tiny painting stove.

The person who first said, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes,” was an idiot. I have snow boots and winter coveralls, but extreme cold still seeps in. Standing in one spot painting is very different from snowshoeing or skiing, where you keep warm by moving. Eric compensates by bringing a clever little portable woodstove with him (above), in front of which he can thaw out his hands and paint tubes. But even he was complaining yesterday.

I once committed to painting outdoors every day for a year. Snowstorms, although good in studio work, result in horrible plein air paintings, and western New York gets a lot of snow. This was before cell phones, so when my battery died from the cold, I had to trudge to the nearest farmhouse for help.

That year turned me into a professional artist. I had a gigantic stack of paintings and no idea what to do with them, so I sold them. Today, I no longer feel the need to prove my toughness. I’ll paint plein air a few times over the winter, but it must be sunny and warm.

Candles were Godfried Schalcken’s best subject. A young woman with a burning candle, c. 1670-75, Uffizi Gallery

This is no week for plein air painting

I’d like to believe that the worst is behind us; after all, the days are getting noticeably longer. However, we’re settling into a deep freeze this week. Our nominal temperature is predicted to drop to -15° F. on Friday night and bounce back up to a high of 5° on Saturday. That’s going to be accompanied with gusts up to 45 mph, which should give us a wind-chill of somewhere around absolute zero. In those temperatures, even oil paints will stiffen until they’re unworkable, although they won’t really freeze until they hit -4° F.

I finished a commission and sent a photo to the client yesterday. “That’s beautiful! That’s just what I was hoping for!” he wrote back, eager to collect his painting. “I’m not going out on Saturday, though, it’s going to be beyond cold.” It wouldn’t be good for the painting to move it in this weather, either.

Despite the beautiful snow, I won’t be painting outdoors this week. If you’re looking for something to do that doesn’t involve freezing to death, consider joining us for the 30-watercolors-in-45-days challenge instead. It’s fun, fast, and will help develop your watercolor skills.

My 2024 workshops: