Warming Up to Painting in Winter

As we approach the start of the official winter season in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to embrace what the season has to offer the landscape painter. Different regions provide variety, but the farther north you are, the more pronounced the personality of winter becomes. The leaves have fallen from the trees, exposing the form of the naked limbs. Flora is dead or dormant, producing a palette of earth tones. Snow and ice often blanket the terrain, simplifying Mother Nature into a sculpture of marble. Light arrives later in the day and retreats earlier in the evening. All of these factors influence our creative mood when we’re painting in winter.

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Winter Canal field sketch (pastel, 10×12) by Richard McKinley

 

Getting (and Staying) Inspired

It’s difficult to paint passionately in the studio from reference taken elsewhere or during a different season. As inspired as we may have been by that vacation scenery, the motivation is frequently lost shortly after we get home. The high desert region of northern New Mexico is a favorite subject of mine, for example, but once I get back to the fertile valleys of southern Oregon, the inspiration for painting that landscape gets lost. Seasonal changes can have a similar effect. Even when I’m working from a plein air sketch as reference, retaining enthusiasm for a brilliant summer scene is difficult when you’re painting in winter.

We like to make the process of painting intellectual, but we’re sensitive creatures. Our environments have a profound effect on our moods and a painting’s outcome. To paint well during these seasonal changes, it’s imperative to make a personal connection to the season. This connection can develop into a concept that provides the purpose behind what we paint.

Just as different music tempos can set a physical and psychological mood, so too can the season. When it comes to winter, Andrew Wyeth perhaps put it best. He said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” I totally agree.

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape—the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” —Andrew Wyeth

Capturing the Winter Landscape in Pastel

Pastel is well suited for painting in winter. The season lends itself to the medium. It’s easy to facilitate the subtle earth tones of winter’s palette with the variety of neutral tones available. The shape of a pastel stick works well to capture the textures of barren nature. The crispness of pure pastel pigment easily depicts the brilliant luminosity of fresh snow on a sunlit winter’s day. 

As landscape painters with nearly three more months of winter ahead of us, we should embrace the charms of the season. We should enjoy the quiet, introspective qualities the season provides. And soon, spring will emerge with its vibrant color and promise of renewal, offering a whole new aesthetic to explore.

 

Get more insights and instruction from Richard McKinley with any of these inspiring books, DVDs or downloads at NorthLightShop.com.

 

 

Interested in plein air painting in spite of the colder, wetter weather? Read about Montana-artist Aaron Schuerr’s experiences of “Extreme Plein Air Painting” here.  

 

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