Determined Painters During Rough Winter

Outdoor painters have faced challenges in almost every region of the country when painting in snow over the years. Here is how a few hardy souls have made it through.

“Two Bobs Painting,” by Bob Matheson, oil on linen panel, 24 x 18 in. Collection the artist
“Two Bobs Painting,” by Bob Matheson, oil on linen panel, 24 x 18 in. Collection the artist

Bob Matheson in Minnesota
Robert Bonawitz and his wife, Cindy, accompanied me on a winter painting excursion in Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls, MN. Cindy took some great shots of us painting. I wound up titling my painting “Two Bobs Painting.”

Aaron Schuerr plein air painting | PleinAir Today
“Christmas Day on the Henry’s Fork,” by Aaron Schuerr, oil, 11 x 14 in. Collection the artist. Plein air

Aaron Schuerr in Idaho
On Christmas Day, I went cross-country skiing in the morning with the family and then painted in the afternoon. Except for some frozen fingers, the day was a fine way to celebrate Christmas!

Carol Strockwasson pastel painting | PleinAir Today
“Cold Cows,” by Carol Strockwasson, 2017, pastel, 6 x 8 in.

Carol Strockwasson in Indiana
When it’s too cold to set up, I paint small while sitting in my car, windows rolled down, with the heater running full blast. Temperatures were only a few degrees above zero when I drove to Union City, Indiana, and Dan Young’s farm. I paint there often because there is not much traffic on the road. I just stop and paint.

Painting en plein air, Jeremy Sams | PleinAir Today
Jeremy Sams’ setup for painting in acrylics
Jeremy Sams fine art | PleinAir Today
His completed painting

Jeremy Sams in North Carolina
Here in North Carolina, the winters are fairly mild and the snowfall here is manageable. When it does snow, I make a point of going outside to capture what I can before it melts away. I use Golden Open acrylics even in winter, and my process is the same as it is in fair weather. I love the way the slower-drying acrylics act in cold weather. They’re typically not heavy-bodied, but in below-freezing temperatures, they seem to get a little more pasty. I use this as an advantage to paint thicker and build up more body on the painting itself. If I need the paint to be a little smoother for blending or just to flow better on the canvas, I add their Open Gel medium. The gel medium brings that buttery feel back to the paint. So far, I haven’t had any of my paint freeze or act adversely, especially with the addition of the medium. The lowest temps I’ve painted in are around 5-10 degrees, and so far, so good.

Plein air artist Kathleen Dunphy | PleinAir Today
Kathleen Dunphy using her car’s hatchback for winter protection

Kathleen Dunphy in California
The first time I bundled up and hauled my gear out in winter conditions, I learned just how challenging painting in the snow can be. It’s always tempting to just take a few photos and use those as reference to paint from in my warm, comfortable studio, but one thing’s for certain: you have to get cold to paint snow convincingly. Almost more than any other subject matter, snow requires direct observation to help the artist convey its subtle beauty. After years of trial and error, I’ve developed a system for painting in the snow that minimizes my personal discomfort and allows me to paint outside in the winter.

Painting in snow | PleinAir Today
Michelle Wegler (left) and Cheryl LeClair-Sommer painting in their bathing suits as temperatures rose near Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota

Michelle Wegler in Minnesota
Cheryl LeClair-Sommer and I were on a painting weekend trip near the Superior National Forest in Northern Minnesota a few years ago. It was March, and we set up on the edge of a snowmobile trail looking over a partially thawed creek bed. We were dressed in our usual winter painting garb: parkas, snow pants, mukluks, wool hats, and mittens. The late winter sun turned out to be very intense, and we became uncomfortably warm. Back to the cabin to change. We had packed our swimsuits in anticipation of a sauna that evening, so we thought, “Why not?” We changed our parkas and snow pants for swimsuits but kept the boots for standing in the snow. One of our husbands was happy to snap the photo! Here are the paintings we were working on.

How do you handle painting in snow? Share it with us in the comments below!

Updated in 2023, this article was originally written and published in 2018 by Steve Doherty.

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  2. I was very impressed with all the painters working in extreme temperatures. I tend to avoid painting plein air in winter but feel more inspired now. I’ll likely start with heater on inside my vehicle preferably not wearing a bathing suit. Great article!

  3. We live on the east coast of Canada and paint in all seasons. We call ourselves “artists in parkas” . Layers and layers of clothing. Worst thing is dropping a brush as it is so hard to bend over with all the heavy clothing.

    We have painted the ice fishing shacks as we set up on the frozen River and we definitely get odd looks from people.

    Humidity and wind are the deciding factors on whether we will paint out. They make a huge difference in our comfort level.

    But it is so worthwhile.


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