Winter Gear for Plein Air Painting Part II

Winter clothes for plein air landscape painting.

My 2016 winter kit.

Last year I wrote about the problems I was having painting outside in the Austrian Alps in February due to inadequate winter gear. This post is about some of the solutions I found after researching and purchasing kit this year. The listed price on some of this stuff is pretty high but buying in spring and summer, using sites like Steep and Cheap or Ebay, price-tracking with Camelcamelcamel, and finding an online store that I’m pretty sure had listed the wrong prices (they’ve since fixed them) allowed me to pick up most items for a fraction of the normal cost.

My goal getting this kit was to be able to work outside all year without feeling any discomfort, despite the fact that I get cold really easily. I’m really happy with my current setup. It also breaths well so I can trudge around in the snow looking for my view without getting too hot. Merino and down both regulate temperature well, so I also don’t have to change in and out of layers as the sun and/or wind comes and goes.

  • The Belay Jacket. A belay jacket is used by alpinists when they have to stop and wait around while climbing mountains. The advantages for plein air painters are threefold. First, the design of the sleeves is to allow for unrestricted movement while climbing (called articulated sleeves). This means that when painting you wont fight your sleeve. The second plus is that they are incredibly lightweight as they are usually stuffed into a stuff-sack and carried up the mountain. They use high-loft down or modern synthetic insulation (you can read about down and synthetic down jackets here) and this, combined with the articulated sleeves, means you really can’t feel the jacket at all when you’re holding your arm up. A normal winter jacket or parka will often have a noticeable pull. The real-world result is that I haven’t had my usual sore shoulder for a few days when I switched to a jacket this year. It’s not that big of a deal, but it is something to consider for anyone looking to pick up a dedicated winter plein air coat. The third thing about belay jackets is that they are very warm so you don’t need many layers to stay warm (though most decent winter jackets do fine here). I picked up a Jottnar Fjorm from a newish company based in England and I’m very happy with it. It’s warm, light, and the sleeves allow for unrestricted movement. It comes in blue and black, which works better with plein air painting in the sun as a brightly colored jacket will reflect its color back onto the painting and make it difficult to gage hues. Mountain Hardware, Rab, Arcteryx, Patagonia, and other mountaineering-gear companies all make belay jackets or parkas. For cottage companies, PHD in England and Feathered Friends, Montbell, and Nunatak in the US are also making belay and expedition jackets and parkas. There are both down and synthetic versions. I went with down for the weight to warmth ratio. The synthetic ones will keep you warm even if they get wet, which seems to me to be more of an issue if your life depends on it high up on a mountain.
  • Mid-layer Sweaters. I’m not a fan of fleece, so I bought a couple of ‘technical’ merino sweaters of different fabric weight that I switch depending on the temperature. They’re not stiff like some of the heavy sweaters I wore in the past to make up for my jackets never being warm enough. My favorite is a Bergans of Norway merino wool sweater that was reasonably priced and has a half-zipper to regulate the temperature better. It also comes with a thumb-hole in case I ever need to do whatever it is you need a thumb-hole for.
  • Merino Base Layers. I had a hard time finding expedition weight pure merino base layers in stores in continental Europe, they really love their plastic over here. As I mentioned last time, synthetic base-layers are more designed for very active use, where wicking away sweat is important. For standing still the best thing I’ve found is a heavy weight merino base layer. This year I’m using 260 weight (gsm) leggings from Icebreaker and a 340 weight Deep Winter Base Layer top from Rapha, an English cycling gear company. The Rapha base layer is pricey but if you consider it’s also a balaclava and neck gaiter, as well as being a very high-quality piece of kit, it’s pretty reasonable. I’m very happy with mine. It’s the only thing I paid full retail price for and I feel it was well worth it. Minus33 makes heavier duty baselayers (400 gsm), but we can’t get their stuff over here. Some companies (Kora and Jottnar being two) have started making base layers out of yak wool, which is supposed to be warmer than merino for the same weight.
Image showing the size difference between Harkila Inuit pac-boots and normal insulated winter boots.

Size difference between Harkila Inuit pac boots and normal winter boots.

  • Pac Boots. I’ve always gotten by with cheap hiking boots with hand warmers stuffed in the toes. Other painters use normal insulated winter boots with their car mats or a piece of foam under their feet as most of the cold comes from touching the freezing ground. I wanted something that I could work outside for hours in without carrying extra gear so I picked up a pair of real pac boots based on Stapleton Kearns‘ recommendation of The Cabelas Trans-Alaskan III Pac Boots. Since we don’t have Cabelas in Europe I bought the similar-looking Harkila Inuits for the around the same price. They’re comically large boots, and online images don’t really show how big they are. You can’t drive while wearing them, so for scouting with a car one still needs a smaller winter boot to use the pedals safely. Like all pac boots, they’re actually two boots in one as there is an inner wool insert that your foot goes into, then that goes into the larger boot. They also have two insoles below the insert and my feet are kept about 4 inches (10 cm) off the ground. Despite the large size, the boots are actually very light and manageable for walking as the insoles are foam and the sole of the boot appears to be hollow, perhaps to insulate better. The important part is that I can stand for two hours on snow and ice in complete comfort.
  • Primaloft/Coreloft pants. A number of companies make insulated pants, again mainly for belaying mountaineers. The difference between these and insulated ski pants is that they lack the Goretex or other durable waterproofing. Since I don’t expect any serious crashes while plein air painting I figured I could skip the heavy-duty shell and just get the insulation. I bought a pair of Arcteryx Atom pants made from their proprietary Coreloft insulation and they really feel like some sort of futuristic fabric. When you move they feel slightly cool on your legs so you don’t get warm, but when you stand still they really insulate well. They don’t swish when you walk like ski-pants and they look pretty discrete for working in them in the city. They were also significantly cheaper in Europe than the US for some reason.
  • Flannel-lined pants. I bought a couple of pairs of flannel-lined pants and can’t believe I’ve suffered through European winters for 25 years without them. Besides being incredibly warm, they’re so comfy. It’s like wearing pajamas all day. I live in these now. I have a pair of Pranas and Craghoppers, the Pranas are much nicer as the lining is pure cotton and doesn’t cling to your legs. The Craghoppers are warmer as the synthetic material use doesn’t breathe as well. The Pranas cost a twice as much. That said, for painting outside in the snow, I prefer the Coreloft pants as the side zipper makes it easier to switch from car-friendly shoes to pac boots.
  • Primaloft hats. Outdoor Research, Montane, and Millet all make radar-style hats out of Primaloft (probably other companies too). I have the Millet one and insulates well, is water-resistant, and still breaths. I also think I look very French in it, which is always a good thing when painting outside.
  • Coreloft gloves for the non-painting hand. I was so impressed with my Primaloft and Coreloft gear that I picked up a pair of Coreloft gloves from Arcteryx. These things suck. They’re not especially warm, and the dexterity in them is terrible. I was trying them on in my studio after they arrived and got paint on them, otherwise I would have sent them back. I was thinking of trying to get the fingers resewn to get some dexterity out of them but, as of now, it’s the only purchase I regret.

    Down Hibbard Mitten for plein air painting in extreme cold.

    Custom-made down Hibbard mitten from Luke’s Ultralight.

  • Custom-made Down Hibbard Mitten. In the past I’ve used a wool scarf sewn into a thumbless-mitten-shape to keep my painting hand warm. The design is called a Hibbard mitten after Aldro Hibbard who painted a lot outside in the New England winters. This year I got one made by Luke’s Ultralight, an ultralight-focused custom clothing company based in Ohio. It works great. It’s very warm and weighs only half an ounce (15g) so you barely feel it on your hand. I should mention that with any Hibbard mitten I don’t wear it the whole time. I prefer to keep my hand exposed to handle the brush better, when it gets cold I put the mitten on until it warms up enough to take it off again.
  • Darn Tough Socks. For comfort, fit and warmth, these are really better than any other brand I’ve found. They come with a lifetime guarantee too.

Recent Italian Studio Paintings

Here are a couple of larger studio landscapes done from smaller plein air studies done on site in central Tuscany in September. I realize I haven’t posted anything in a while as I’ve been working on these larger studio paintings and they take a long time. I have three more on the easel and I’ll try to update the post as I finish them.

Studio landscape painting of Castelmuzio, Tuscany by Marc Dalessio

Castelmuzio. 120 x 150 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of Scrofiano, Tuscany by Marc Dalessio

Scrofiano. 90 x 110 cm, oil on linen.

Florence Academy (New Jersey) Show

Marc Dalessio Plein Air Landscape Painting Exhibition at the Florence Academy of Art in Jersey City.I have some paintings on display at the Florence Academy of Art‘s New Jersey campus. They’re having an open studio today in their new space in the MANA Contemporary art center. If anyone is in the neighborhood, be sure to pop over. The teaching staff is excellent at the FAA’s new space, and it looks like a very promising endeavor for the school.

Mana Contemporary Florence Academy Exhibition
My show will be up until the 11th of December.

Recent Tuscan Plein Air Paintings

Plein air landscape painting of Sinalunga (Siena).

Sinalunga from the Valley Below. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

These plein air paintings are actually from a few weeks back, but I never got around to posting them. I was working in the area around Montisi (east of Siena), and looking for views that would work as larger compositions for studio paintings to be done over the winter.

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the Holy Grail of landscape painting is a view where the foreground, middle-ground, and background compose well and I spend a great deal of time every year driving and walking in search of such a view. An obvious question would be ‘why not just invent it from parts of views taken elsewhere?’ The answer for me is that, in part, my training makes it difficult. I was trained with the more ‘Impressionist’ methodology of sight-size, which requires the subject to be in front of the artist (as opposed to a ‘construction’ based painting system). In part though, it’s also a component of my philosophy on painting of taking a more humble and reverent approach to viewing the natural world. Furthermore, there is a historic precedence as seen in the work of a great number of plein air painters, and Henry Fuseli said it best: “Selection is the invention of the landscape painter”.

It means a lot of driving though.

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

Castelmuzio #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

Castelmuzio #2. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

Castelmuzio #3. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I’ll often do a number of paintings of the same view when I do finally find one that will work on a larger canvas. This is in addition to a number of pencil sketches to figure out the balance and composition of the final piece.

One of my favorite ‘tricks’ to finding good views in central Italy is to look for the cemetery. They tend to be placed just the right distance from the town, usually with a very good view on the town, and they have parking and shade to work under.

Plein air landscape painting of Scrofiano, Tuscany.

Scrofiano. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a sunset in Tuscany.

Tuscan Sunset. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Overall I was quite happy with this short excursion and I think I can make at least three larger studio pieces from a few days worth of scouting.

September in Salzburg and Hallein

Plein air painting of a honey seller in Hallein, Austria.

Honey Seller in the Market, Hallein. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

A few plein air paintings from earlier in the month in Salzburg and Hallein. These are part of a continuing series of paintings I’m doing in the area for an exhibition in Hallein. The show was supposed to be coming up fast, but I’ve pushed it back a year to next October, so I can try to get four seasons worth of work into it.

Plein air painting of Schöndorferplatz in Hallein, Austria.

Schöndorferplatz, Hallein. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

I really enjoy painting in the valley west of Hallein as well, (even though it’s Germany and I’m supposed to be working on an Austrian show).

Plein air painting of a church in Oberau, Germany.

Church in Oberau (Germany). 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

I painted a lot in Salzburg again. I tend to focus on smaller areas as walking a lot to scout can take up too much time for these short trips. In this case I was in the Mirabell Gardens for a couple of days.

Plein air painting of trees in the Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria.

Mirabell Gardens #1. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria.

Mirabell Gardens #2. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of statues in the Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria.

Statues in the Mirabell Gardens. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a street musician in Salzburg, Austria.

Street Musician, Salzburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

This last one is unfinished as I didn’t calculate the shadow of the bell tower blocking out my light for an hour. It was my last morning there so I didn’t get a chance to go back this trip.

Unfinished painting of carriages in Salzburg, Austria.

Carriages in Salzburg (unfinished). 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Cape Cod Paintings

Plein air painting of an umbrella on Marconi Beach, Cape Cod.

Red Umbrella, Marconi Beach. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

These are some of the small plein air paintings from last week on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. We stayed with the excellent landscape painter Joseph McGurl and his wife, and he showed us the good spots for landscape painting.

Plein air painting of a lifeguard station on Marconi Beach, Cape Cod.

Lifeguard Station, Marconi Beach. 14 x 11 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a Cranberry Bog.

Cranberry Bog. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Landscape painting of a cranberry bog.

Side of a Cranberry Bog. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Painting of Quissett Harbor, Cape Cod.

Quissett Harbor. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of Fisherman's Beach, Quissett Harbor.

Fisherman’s Beach, Quissett Harbor. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Some of these paintings will be going to Collins Gallery in Orleans, MA.

Painting of Surf Drive Beach in Falmouth, Cape Cod.

Surf Drive Beach in Falmouth. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a painter at sunset.

Painting at Sunset. 12 x 8 in., oil on linen.

For the last stop of our two month trip to America, I taught a couple of three day plein air workshops in Boston for Leo Mancini-Hresko’s Waltham Studios. Boston is gorgeous. Probably the most beautiful large city in the US. I had been there 25 years ago for a couple of days, but didn’t remember it being so picturesque.

I didn’t have time to paint any cityscapes, unfortunately, but here are the unfinished demonstration pieces from the plein air classes. I painted the same view twice as it worked technically for the points I was making during the demo.

Plein air painting of the Boston Gondola dock on the Charles River.

Boston Gondola Dock. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a Charles River Gondola in Boston, MA.

Charles River Gondola. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Nova Scotia

Painting of the Picton Castle in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

The Picton Castle. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Here are the paintings from the last week in Nova Scotia, Canada. We rented a place just outside of Mahone Bay and painted up and down the coast from Blue Rocks to Chester.

Plein air painting of a street in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Street in Lunenburg. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Lunenburg Harbor, Nova Scotia.

Lunenburg Harbor. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Lunenburg was a particular favorite. There was a wide selection of views in a small area, the weather was great (the food too) and the people were very friendly.

Plein air landscape painting of the point at Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia.

The Point at Blue Rocks. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Blue Rocks. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Because of the microclimates in the area, we often had sun all day in the town of Mahone Bay, when other parts of the coast had the fog.

Plein air painting of the churches in Mahone Bay.

Fog Lifting, Mahone Bay (#1). 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of fog lifting in Mahone Bay.

Fog Lifting, Mahone Bay (#2). 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of boats in Chester Harbor, Nova Scotia.

Boats in Chester Harbor. 20 c 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a dock in Chester, Nova Scotia.

Dock in Chester. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of dinghies at sunset in Lunenburg.

Boats at Sunset, Lunenburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Maine Paintings

Below are some of my paintings from the last week in mid-coast Maine.

Plein air painting of Broad Cove, Maine.

Osier Dr, Broad Cove, Maine. 11 x 14 in.

Painting of fishermen in Friendship, Maine.

Fishing, Friendship. 12 x 8 in.

Plein air painting of a boatyard in Round Pond, Maine.

Boatyard, Round Pond. 11 x 14 in.

Plein air painting of Round Pond, Maine.

Parking Lot, Round Pond. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of a road in Friendship, Maine.

Road to the Town Landing, Friendship.

Plein air painting of a sailboat in Rockport, Maine.

Sailboat, Rockport. 12 x 8 in.

Plein air painting from outside of Waldoboro, Maine.

Grey Day on the 32. 8 x 12 in.

It was my first time painting in Maine and I have to say it’s one of the best places I’ve ever painted. The weather has been great, sunny but cool most of the time, the people are incredibly friendly and knowledgable about plein air painting, and there is a great wealth of stunningly picturesque places to work.

Plein air painting of a dock in Friendship, Maine.

Dock in Friendship. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of Friendship, Maine.

Friendship, Maine. 11 x 14 in.

I have an opening tonight at Haynes Gallery in Thomaston, Maine. It’s actually a few group shows. My ‘group’ consists of Karen Blackwood, T. J. CunninghamBen Fenske, Greg Howitch, Leo Mancini-Hresko, Joseph McGurl and myself.

Joseph McGurl was a big influence on my work when I was first starting out as a landscape painter (and still is), so it’s great to be showing with him.

Plein air landscape painting of Haynes Gallery in Maine.

Haynes Gallery, Thomaston. 8 x 12 in.

I’ll also be giving a painting demonstration at 3:30 pm, if you happen to be in the area.

Plein air painting of a street in Thomaston, Maine.

Afternoon Shadows, Thomaston. 8 x 12 in.

California Central Coast Plein Air Paintings

Below are some paintings from the Central Coast of California over the last ten days. I was based in Carmel Valley, but moved down the coast quite a bit.

Plein air painting of Green Valley, Cambria.

Green Valley, Cambria. 32 x 40 in.

Plein air landscape painting of Big Sur, California.

Big Sur. 32 x 40 in., oil on linen.

These first two paintings were quite large so I tied the canvases to the ubiquitous barbed wire fences to keep them steady in the high winds. I picked up a lightweight rope-and-plastic-carabiner combo from Nite Ize at a local camping store and the system worked perfectly.

Plein air landscape painting set up in Big Sur, California.

My set-up in Big Sur.

Plein air painting of a model standing in rye grass.

Rye Grass. 40 x 32 in., oil on linen.

One great thing about painting in the Monterey area is that there is a handful of world-class plein air artists who live there to paint with. On the above painting I worked with John Burton, and the sketch below is of Mark Farina, who we painted with one morning south of Carmel.

Plein air painting of an artist working in Carmel.

Mark Farina painting at Monastery Beach, Carmel. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of the hills near Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle Hills. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of San Carpoforo beach.

San Carpoforo Beach. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Notley's Landing, Big Sur, California.

Cows at Notleys Landing. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

I’ve always felt I became a landscape painter because of growing up surrounded by the beauty of California, so it’s great to get back there and paint when I can.

Plein air painting of a patio in Carmel Valley, California.

My Folk’s Patio. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Update: We stopped and painted for a bit in Lake Tahoe on our way out of California. Here are a couple images:

Plein air oil painting of the Tahoe Princess on Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe Princess. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of a street in South Lake Tahoe, California.

Street in South Lake Tahoe. 8 x 12 in.

Carbon Fiber Painting Gear

In my quest for a lighter and more portable plein air set-up I’m currently experimenting with a carbon fiber photography tripod and paint box.

Sirui tripod for plein air landscape painting.

My current camera tripod set-up.

The camera tripod I settled on is a Sirui T-025X with their C-10X ball head. It was originally recommended to me by plein air painter Paul Rafferty who has used one to great success for a year now. Sirui is a Chinese company who, apparently, used to make photo equipment for Gitzo (the very expensive Italian company) and are now making tripods with their own brand name. The tripod folds up to be tiny and weighs only 1.54 lb (0.7 kg) -slightly less than the Fome aluminum easel I’ve been using for a while. (For anyone thinking of getting the Sirui, you can find one on Amazon and support my site).

The tiny Sirui T-025x all folded up.

Sirui T-025x. Banana for scale.

To use sight-size one’s panel or canvas should ideally be at eye-level. This puts the surface quite high off the ground where stability becomes an issue. On the other hand, after years of working on canvas, I don’t really mind a little give while I’m applying paint. Even with my extremely light backpack hanging off the supplied carabiner, this set-up becomes stable enough for me to paint comfortably.

Sirui tripod for a painting easel.

The mast bolted to the Sirui quick-release plate.

I also don’t like the pochade-box-on-camera-tripod system that most plein air painters use. With sight-size it means the paints are right under my nose. The solution for me is to use a mast to get the panel high enough, and attach the paint box to the bottom. For the mast of this set-up I picked up a pre-made carbon fiber slat, drilled a hole with a 1/4″ drill-bit, and bolted it to the quick-release plate of the Sirui. The Sirui quick-release plate has screw threads out, so one can switch to a longer bolt without permanently affecting the tripod. One could drill a hole in the aluminum or steel mast of the Fome easels and get an even stiffer design. I settled on a shorter mast to be able to pack it in a suitcase easily. With the taller camera tripod it is still big enough for my 11″ x 14″ (25 x 35 cm) panels in a vertical position, even if I have the easel set up downhill.

Carbon fiber painting box for plein air landscape painting.

Carbon fiber ‘cigar box’ palette.

I’d love to be able to triumphantly declare that the carbon fiber painting box was a great success and is the future of plein air painting equipment. Unfortunately, after an annoying amount of time and money spent, I have to admit that a $5 dollar Ebay cigar-box works just as well. Leo Mancini-Hresko has written a good blog post on making one. The carbon fiber isn’t any lighter or sturdier, and it lacks the charm to boot.

Carbon fiber cigar box style palette.

Carbon fiber painting box.