Winter Plein Air Painting with Acrylics

Winter Plein Air Painting with Acrylics

Winter painting sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Snow creates a whole new world of light and shadow, with soft pillowy edges and sparkling highlights. But acrylics start behaving strangely below freezing temperatures. Too cold and acrylic paint gets chunky and can form a cottage-cheese like consistency. Gross. And hard to paint with. So what can you do?

How can you lower the freezing temperature of paint?

All paint comes with a recommended minimum and maximum working temperature, usually optimal at room temperature. Golden doesn’t recommend painting at temperatures below  9° C (49° F) as the paint stops forming a cohesive film and is prone drying defects.

However, I’ve found that using Golden OPEN Acrylics or regular heavy body acrylics with OPEN slow-drying medium can keep me working outside at temperatures below freezing. But by about -10°C (14° F), I start to have serious problems with the paint no longer bonding to my canvas or holding together.

You can use hot water from a thermos to fill your rinsing can. This will help clean your brushes when the paint starts to freeze in the bristles. Adding a splash of vodka to your paint water also helps lower the freezing temperature.

Does acrylic paint dry in freezing temperatures?

Acrylic paint doesn’t really dry at low temperatures, it just freezes and the paint has trouble cohesively binding. Be prepared to carefully pack out your painting and let it dry out flat at home. Also be prepared to touch-up your painting after it’s dried indoors. Remember: the key to happiness here is low expectations.

Do not use too much water in your paint – go for acrylic medium instead. Too much water mixed into the paint will freeze to the canvas and then thaw to a disastrous slurry when brought indoors. 

A snowy day of painting at the ski hill. I brought a sunbrella, but the snowflakes made their way underneath

Set realistic goals

In warm weather, it’s reasonable to set-up in a choice location and paint for hours. In winter, it is not.

So set reasonable goals and expectations for what you want to achieve. Tell yourself that you’re painting outside purely for the experience, not to snowshoe home with a polished masterpiece. Here are some ideas:

  • Paint a 10 minute study, then walk for a bit to a new location and warm up, then do another 10 minute study.
  • Paint an underpainting – block in the lights, midtones, and darks.
  • Tone your canvas ahead of time with a ground. You probably won’t be able to work in layers as the paint won’t dry well.
  • Be prepared to paint loose. Just embrace the mess if the paint stops bonding well and begins to get muddy.

Location, location, location

Pick a spot that is as warm as possible – in the sunlight and out of the wind! If it is a sunny day, look around and make a prediction about where the shadows will move as you paint. You don’t want to end up in the shade!

If you’re in the mountains, keep in mind that cold air can funnel down creek beds or gullies, making it extra chilly.

Falling snow is pretty, and using a sunbrella can help protect your canvas. However, little snowflakes floating around will find their way underneath and stick to your work in progress. Then they can absorb bits of pigment and make spots on your canvas. Embrace it!

Painting in the sun – I picked a location that was sunny and warm!

If you paint outside near your car or a building, then you’ll have an option to warm up and take a break. Some artists even paint from their car when it is truly frigid. They’ll park in a spot with a scenic view and then carefully paint from the front seat with heat on as needed.

Don’t forget: keep yourself warm too!

It’s cold work standing or sitting around! Dress in extra layers and don’t forget warm gloves that give you the flexibility to handle your brush. A thermos of tea is a nice touch!

Make sure you check in with yourself and your body temperature as you paint. I find I get into a bit of a flow-state while painting en plein air and loose track of time and then suddenly am very, very cold! That’s no good! Set a timer on your phone if you need a reminder to check in.

Sitting can be warmer than standing if you’re all huddled up your mass of body heat. Bring a stool or chair or insulated pad to keep off the cold ground.

Brrrr! Happy painting!

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