Wintering – The Light
Updated: Mar 7
Aspects of painting out of doors in Winter- Brian Keeler
You’ve got to suffer if you want to sing (or paint) the blues does not really apply here, meaning to take the adage for blues singing and apply it to painting. It is not about the suffering in other words, but about direct perception and expressing the beauty of the land in winter.
Painting plein air out of doors in the winter or even in adverse conditions is just to continue the practice with the exhilaration that comes with working direct from nature. The appeal for me is the beauty of light on snow. The curvaceous forms the land assumes when it is blanketed with snow tends to take the topography into a purer state- one where the forms underlying are distilled into beautiful and essential shapes. These forms are easily visible too by virtue of the whiteness. Combine this with the golden light of late afternoon -bringing out with (simultaneous contrast) the blues of shadows- it then has the making of chromatic poetry.
This winter I’ve returned to painting some views around the Finger Lakes that I have enjoyed looking at and sometimes painting in other seasons. Some are nearby, like a landscape near Brooktondale. This one has an 19th century farm that has not been encroached upon too much by modernity, although there is a cluster of new houses on the far horizon that brings one back from indulging in any idea that time has stood still. Then there is the editing, selecting and emphasizing. As with writing, painting seeks to reveal a personal truth that needs honing and prioritizing to evoke our higher truth. It is not just a mechanical transcription, like a video, but an art that is crafted. As James Joyce says, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Other motifs chosen this year include a view over Seneca Lake near the town of Himrod, NY, about 15 miles or so north of Watkins Glen on the west side of the lake. I painted this view once about 20 years ago and just returned to it this past fall. This vantage really does allow for a wonderful contemplation of the agrarian history along with the beauty of Victorian architecture. The house and barn here, formerly The Four Chimney’s Winery are set along a gently sloping plane that leads down to the lake. I painted an oil here in October late in the afternoon and then returned in early January.
The beginning stage of plein air is a very creative and exhilarating and that is why I like to paint out of doors even in the winter. The design is quickly blocked in but while addressing the fundamentals of drawing, perspective and design. When I did the winter version of this view near Himrod I set up at nearly the same spot and at the same time of day. But during the course of several months the sun had moved further south at sunset, so the light was not the same. Furthermore, the snow changed the land close by and the buildings along with the lands on the other side of the lake. The bales that were portrayed in both paintings were invented. I like the inclusion of bales as they add forms that augment the perspective and it is fun to arrange them in some type of pattern or so they have an intrinsic numerical relation- I usually choose odd numbers for the intrinsic dynamic quality of odd numbers. Then the relationships can be played with too for optimal interest.
As with the bales, I sometimes invent the clouds as well. And the motivation and rewards are similar. With clouds, I base them on observation of what I have just seen or on memory. With clouds too, my goal is to arrange them in such a way so that they have inherent abstract beauty. But the perspective of the sky and the clouds within will need to support or augment the spatial description of the land. And with all the inclusions, buildings, clouds, trees etc- the light should be integral and unified. This is part of the challenge of plein air- to capture the fleeting and fugitive effects of light.
So how about the cold? Well, I usually choose days when it is not too windy, not too cold and when the sun is shinning. But truth be told, there have been some challenging times with frost bitten fingers. But I am encouraged by tales I’ve heard of the 19th century British painter, William Turner who supposedly had himself lashed to crows nest high above the deck of a ship while navigating a storm in the English Channel. He did this to increase the authenticity of his work depicting maritime scenes.
I dress warmly and generally don’t remain out there more than an hour and half. On a recent painting session overlooking Seneca Lake at Glenora it was about 16 degrees. Does the paint freeze up? It does get stiff somewhat and difficult to spread. As I leave my paint and supplies in my truck it does take some effort and patience to get it to flow. I sometimes keep the white paint inside the house prior to winter painting so that at least this important color is fluid. On a recent painting trip to Keuka Lake, I found that my solvent, mineral spirits (or the sediment of paint inside) had frozen in the canister. Fortunately there was still enough in liquid form to allow for the painting to proceed.
One of the aspects of painting out of doors in the winter that can be seen as an advantage is the necessity to work fast. I was pleasantly surprised at the results after just an hour of work on a few of these recent winter works. They were very brushy, painterly, nicely abstracted with bold brushwork. Sometimes I think these early stages are better or at least they have qualities that I like. There is the advice that is sometimes given to students (and which I remind myself too) which is to make your work a masterpiece at each stage. The idea is to make your work complete at any place in the development so that it could stand on its own at that point.
The winter has an austerity about which appeals to us. The bare trees and the unflowered and unfroned land reveal the underlying structure. We see the skeletal structure. While driving through the area between Wyalusing and Ithaca during a big snow storm, I was appreciating the geometric beveled angles of foot-high snow accumulating on roofs. But the works done in winter usually seem to be about the season, which is not necessarily bad. Portrayals of the land at other times can allude to other ideas more easily it seems.
As a study in contrasts, I'll share two anecdotes from my painting history about painting in winter- one an expression of welcoming and delight the other of fear and suspicion. It must be 25 years ago now, that I decided to paint outside during winter on the street outside of my girlfriend's apartment on Breese Street in the town of Wyoming, PA, which is a suburb of Wilkes-Barre. It was beautiful, the light was great, the snow had just been shoveled and the old row houses looked inviting. Even though it was only 25 degrees it seemed like a respite from the colder weather we'd been having. So I set up on the sidewalk and began working on a pastel. Not long after I started, a beligerant constable accosted me verbally with profanity saying they were getting complaints. He requested my ID and I refused as I was not breaking any laws or doing anything wrong. He returned with a more diplomatic man in blue and I eventually produced my driver's license. my brother said that I was probably in my right but it was not worth going to jail for. I wrote a letter to the editor of Times Leader relating my rude reception and treatment. On the other side of the spectrum is the following- In Italy, I have painted in January and the reception was markedly different. I was set up on an iconic abutment of the bridge, Ponte Santa Trinita overlooking the Arno River, when a passerby exclamied in Italian, "You've captured the colors of January!"
But back to snow. The nuance of hue and value are also part of the appeal of painting snow. We all know snow is white, but the variety of hue shifts can be appreciated since white allows for reflectivity and for variations in the form to be enjoyed. The sculptural rhythms and flow of forms have an abstract beauty- sometimes with parallels in clouds, mud on stream beds of sand in dunes.
We think of some of the wonderful works of historical painters who have portrayed winter scenes and are often inspired by their works. Whether it be the dirty snow of well-trodden winter streets outside tenement apartment buildings by the ashcan school painters or a magpie on a fence in winter by Monet- we find something to enjoy in their portrayals. Also of note are the wonderful genre scenes of winter, such as those paintings of people of Holland enjoying winter activities on iced-over canals and rivers and American versions of everyday life from years of yore also capture our imaginations. The famous painting in the National Gallery in DC of the ice skater or Geroge Bellows paintings of Maine in the winter also deserve our admiration.
The plein air studies shown in this article offer an invaluable first experience of the motif. Then there is the opportunity to elaborate and expand on these in-field studies with a larger studio version of the the same subject. This is done with other types of painting too, be it a figurative work, an allegory, a portrait, still life or portrait. The following painting of the view from Glenwood Heights road north of Ithaca is just one of those elaborations. Why do another version? The subject sometimes calls for more esploration. The preliminary work has been done, the study and the feel for the location has been gleaned. Now I want to adjust the composition or accentuate a hue or bring out an element. In this work I altered the composition by bringing down the horizon so that there is more sky. The division of space however is the main motive here. I also brought the clouds and arranged a group of clouds with new spatial realtions and new color as well. The lighting was reconsidered somewhat too. And lastly, a pair of crosscountry skiiers were added.
Above- "Glenwood- The Final Light- February" Oil on linen 40" x 44" This large studio oil takes the same view as the plein air painting at the top of this article and reworks the composition. This painting availble at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.
Videos of Brian Keeler painting winter landscapes-