My bedroom is unheated. On a -3F morning like this I am not anxious to jump out of bed. Yes, I’ve painted outdoors on days like this and, no, I’m not in any hurry to repeat the experience.
Among my painting fraternity, the two people out there painting last week are both watercolorists: Poppy Balser, who’s up in Nova Scotia using vodka in her wash cup to keep the paints moving, and Russel Whitten in Ocean Park, who just worked fast until his paint crystallized.
Oil paint will eventually stop moving in this weather as well, although it takes this kind of extreme cold to get there. The painting of hayfields, above, was done on a similarly frigid morning. That’s why it’s lumpy. It was so cold that my car battery died while I was painting. I trekked to a farmhouse to call for help. “I couldn’t figure out what you were doing out there on a day like this,” the woman answering the door said. “I thought you were watching coyotes.”
That year, I had committed to a plein air painting every day, six days a week, regardless of the weather. I painted in gales, blasting snow, lashing rain, and occasional electrical storms. That year made me into a painter, and it is how I finally moved from being an amateur to a professional. It also proved to me that I could paint in any conditions, and that I didn’t need to ever again—unless I wanted to.
Rockwell Kent first visited Greenland in 1929, saying the visit “had filled me with a longing to spend a winter there, to see and experience the far north at its spectacular worst; to know the people and share their way of life.” In 1931, Kent built himself a hut in in the tiny settlement of Illorsuit (then called “Igdlorssuit”), a village north of the Arctic Circle. He wintered and painted there. As a socialist, Kent was enamored of Inuit society, considering their little village a kind of utopia.
Kent later said that his year in Illorsuit was the happiest and most productive time of his life. Among his other pursuits, he acquired a sled and team so that he could make even more remote painting and camping expeditions. In a witty aside, Kent painted himself painting this iceberg, surrounded by his sled dogs, here.
As a German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich could, I suppose, be described as a utopianist of a different stripe. His goal was to portray that sublime moment when the contemplation of nature causes a reawakening of our spiritual self.
Friedrich set out a manifesto for painters that still rings true: “The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”
Friedrich recognized winter as a still and dead time, and the only hint of human activity in The Sea of Ice, above, is the subtle, moralizing shipwreck. This is very different from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ““The Hunters in the Snow,” which is a panoply of everything we do in the wintertime. While the overwhelming sense is one of order and human industry, there are shades of Friedrich’s wrecked ship in this painting: the hunters and their dogs are exhausted, and their bag is one measly red fox.
Lawren Harris was one of the driving forces behind the Canadian Group of Seven, and the most plastic of those painters. He went from impressionism to Art Nouveau to complete abstraction in a matter of two decades. His break with realism occurred after he visited and painted in the Arctic.
Harris believed in the arctic as a living force: “We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”