Plein Air in the Snow!

Late in February, I headed up to Yosemite to go to the reception for the Yosemite Renaissance show (which was lovely, by the way!).  I figured I ought to try to do some plein air work while I was up there, so I set about doing some research.  As a pretty typical California boy, I deal with snow only in small amounts, and so have never painted in conditions like that.  Thank goodness for those crazy folks back east, who have to work in this kind of stuff before!  Here are two links I found useful-

What amused me most was how much both posts focused on what to wear, and talked little about dealing with paint in the cold!  Hahaha! But it's true.  If you're cold, its hard to focus on making beauty.  So I listened to their wise words, and layered and layered, bought some snow pants, had my non-painting hand in a snow glove (Michael Jackson style!), stayed close to my car (or my room) to get warm as needed, and stayed out of the wind.

This is from my first day out, on the road that goes around the valley.  In the winter, there's lots of room to park.  So I just found a spot and pulled over, literally, to the side of the road. Set up my easel and got to painting.  This is closer to the entrance of the valley, with El Capitan behind my back.


My photo above came late in the game, and the mountains are so tall that the light changes quickly in the valley in the winter.   So there was a bit of a slash of light that came down on to a few of the trees that's not in the photo, before the light went behind the mountain.  I had to paint that from memory after the fact.  I really wanted to get that cold, glaring light that was bouncing off of the snowy mountain.

This second one was painted from the stoop of my little wooden cabin in Half Dome Village.  Again, that glare off the mountain, through the trees, was lovely!  I brought vodka to mix with my water (as I read about), but never got around to using it.  By the time I recognized my need here, it was too late, and I didn't want to stop the process.  It was early morning, so things were pretty cold.  Right around freezing still.  You'll notice the crystallization in my sky wash, which started to freeze up when I painted it!!  The water in my bowl was fine, but my little mixtures of paint were definitely turning to slush on my palette.  I took the painting in to my room and set it next to the heater to get things to defrost and dry.  Brrrrr!!!



After spending too much time driving around the valley the first day, looking for subjects to paint, on the second day I figured, "Eh!  Why make it hard?"  So I went out to the snow covered parking lot at Half Dome Village and painted this lovely subject!


Once again, it was pretty cold, so things weren't drying.  I had to go to my car and blast the defroster to get my initial wash to dry thoroughly.  This was a good thing too, because there were drifts of snow coming down from the pines up above.  When the paint's 100% dry, nothing reactivates- which is good, because I had multiple splats of snow on my sky!  But if you look closely at Half Dome, you'll notice little "flecks" in the wash- those were from little snowflakes fluttering down into the wet wash.  :)


The snow dribbled down into the trees too.  More like "chunks" of snow "plopped" onto my painting.  But still, you get the idea!.  I didn't mind the effects, but I wished the trees were darker.  So when I got back home I did a few things-

1) I did an additional wash on the sky, to make the snow-covered shoulder of Half Dome "pop" more.  The value was too pale on the original- Cobalt Blue really does dry much much paler!

2) I darkened up the base of the trees to better reflect the shadowy nature of them.  I liked the dribbles in the first batch better, but there was no contrast in value between them and Half-Dome, so I like that element better in the 2nd version.  Whaddaya gonna do?  You can't have both!

3) I also worked on darkening up and growing the raven in the tree on the right.  Lots of ravens around the park, cawing and such!  Very emblematic to me of the space in winter.

It's also worth noting the basic hue shift between the two paintings.  This really has more to do with camera work- one in the shadows of my car on a snowy day, and one in the more controlled environment of my house with good lighting.  The second is much warmer and more accurate. 



In the end, the process was pretty doable!  :)  These three were all done between 30-40 degrees.  Cold, but not insane.  But if I hadn't had my car's defroster or my room's heater, I'm not quite sure what I would have done.  It's hard to do a proper watercolor painting without atleast two washes.  I've seen a person (really) use a blow torch to dry things out in the field.  I guess that'd be one way to do it!  But without that drying tool, it's hard to get things done.  If you can stay close to the car, things get much much easier- just gotta follow the proffered advice and bundle up properly for sitting in one spot in the snow for an hour!  :)