2016 Edit: I’ve since updated my gear and wrote a new post with better information.
I love painting snow scenes outdoors in the winters, but I really, really hate being cold. I also struggle to work when I’m uncomfortable, and I believe painting is difficult enough even in the most controlled of situations.
Picking the right gear for plein air painting can be a problem as most winter outdoor gear is made for hikers or skiers/snowboarders, where the wearer will be moving a great deal. The manufacturers’ ‘minimum temperature’ is based on a much more active user than the average plein air painter, and I find that for standing still for hours in the snow means you pretty much have to double the listed temperature range on clothing. Ice-fishing and hunting forums are great places to research winter plein air gear, as they tend to have similar needs to us.
For staying really warm the key is lots of layers. Sierra Trading Post has a good guide to layering. Their interest in layers, however, is on being able to remove them when one warms up. I find I rarely remove a layer while plein air painting as I’m gradually getting colder the longer I stand still. The layering is important to me for getting warm enough in the first place. The downside with lots of layers is that movement gets harder, and for painting one doesn’t want to feel restricted in their arm movement. After painting for hours in multiple layers I get really sore shoulders.
The last two weeks I was painting outdoors in Austria and Bavaria in below-freezing temperatures and really suffered from the cold due to poor equipment planning on my part. I had to stop painting a couple times due to the cold, and I was often tense and stiff from standing still for hours without a proper kit on. Over the course of the trip I gradually picked up the gear I needed to work comfortably.
My old, cheap, pair of hiking boots weren’t waterproof enough for the amount of snow we found. After struggling a couple days with wet, very cold feet and trying to find some decent winter boots locally, I ended up just driving to the Meindl factory in Kirchanschöring, Bavaria, about half an hour north of where we were staying. I have a pair of Meindl hiking shoes which I’ve worn every day for a few years now and they’re still in great shape (on the left in the photo above). They were also really comfortable from day one and this trip I didn’t want to waste time breaking in new shoes. Furthermore, because of all the scouting I was doing by car, I wanted a smaller winter boot that I could wear while driving. Having a large choice at the Meindl store in the small town was perfect. In the end I picked up their Garmisch Pro GTX (in the middle in the photo above). The trade-off for being able to drive safely is that they’re not as warm as the pac boots that most winter plein air painters wear. These Meindls keep my feet warm in snow for over an hour, but after that I start to feel the cold. On the other hand, they’re such comfortable and well-made footwear that I later drove back and picked up a pair of Dovre Extreme boots (far right in the photo) for the rest of the year.
From people who know much more about standing still in cold weather, Stapleton Kearns recommends the Trans-Alaska III Pac Boot from Cabelas, and the Baffin Polar Series are recommended on ice-fishing forums. I hate the idea of buying shoes online, so I’ll look at them in stores when I’m over in Canada this August. Amazon also sells boot blankets, which get high praise from hunters, though I would think painters who stand would move too much and wear them out.
Another idea I’ve seen on ice-fishing forums is to take a piece of styrofoam to stand on to keep the shoes from touching the ice. Leo Mancini-Hresko uses the mats from his car for keeping his feet from touching the snow for the same reason. (In the photograph from 1893 posted below, Finnish painters Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Albert Edelfelt are clearly keeping their feet off the snow as well.)
For socks I was using Salewa and Meindl merino wool hiking/hunting socks. The Salewas kept their shape better, but the Meindls were warmer. When it was really cold I put Little Hotties handwarmers in the toes of the boots and, for those times, I preferred the thinner Salewa socks. Good American sock brands I see recommend are Darn Tough and Point6. Electric, heated socks are always tempting too.
I find keeping my feet warm to be the most important thing in winter plein air painting.
For baselayer leggings, I have a pair of merino wool bottoms from Patagonia which have worked well in the past. This year I somehow forgot them while packing and could only find the synthetic ones available in the local stores. The synthetic ones supposedly work well for activities such as hiking or climbing, but for standing still they’re a disaster. I layered two pairs and still felt the cold in my legs. Winter hunting forums recommend First Lite, Ibex, or Icebreaker for merino wool baselayers. (Many are on sale at the moment, if you can find your size). In past winters I’ve always worn snowboarding shells over my regular pants and usually never had problems with cold legs.
For me, the upper body is the easiest part to keep warm. Even though my current Patagonia parka isn’t great for really cold days, I find that with enough sweaters on it works. I also have a Patagonia down ‘shirt’ (really just a lightweight down jacket) which I use as a mid-layer when it’s really cold. As I said above, wearing lots of layers makes it more difficult to move your shoulders to paint. Someday I’ll pick up a dedicated painting jacket, one that is both really warm and allows a great deal of mobility, something like the Arc’teryx Ceres, or Rab Neutrino, but I’d like to try one on before dropping that kind of money. The really warm jackets which allow great mobility get really expensive really fast. I also dislike the really bright colors that much of this gear comes in. I paint often in city centers in Europe in the winter, and I try to attract as little attention as possible while I’m working (something like this, as tempting as it is, I feel is out of the question). More importantly though, the bright colors can reflect back onto the painting while working in the sun, which affects the way one sees their colors. I find muted colors in the middle value range, or blues, are the best for shirts, sweaters and jackets.
For my hands, I find any decent winter glove works on my left hand where I hold my brushes. On this trip I was using a cheap, lightweight wool glove without problems. On my painting hand I can’t wear a glove and paint comfortably, but I find my hand gets cold after a while. My solution is to carry a Hibbard Mitten in my pocket and put it on when I feel the cold. During those periods I’ll work on areas which don’t require much precision and after a few minutes my hand is usually warm again, and stays that way for a while. When it gets cold again I rinse and repeat. If there is a wind or it is really cold I can do a whole painting wearing a Hibbard Mitten, but I prefer not to.
For my neck I wear an old cashmere scarf and never have issues with cold on my neck. A good neck-gaiter would probably be a better idea as the scarf can sometimes come lose and hit your palette. I’ve also looked into balaclavas, and will pick one up to try, though it will probably be a good idea to keep the face open while painting in cities.
Hat-wise, my wool fisherman-style hat worked fine this trip. For anything colder a fur-lined bomber hat would probably work better. Though if things get that cold I’ll probably paint from a heated car, or through the window of the hotel or house where I’m staying. When it’s snowing heavily I put the hood on my parka up and it’s designed to stick out from my face quite a bit and keep the snow off.
Also, when it’s snowing heavily I use an umbrella from Easyl to keep the snow off of my palette and the painting. I’d like to thank whoever left it in my car, it works great.
I’ve read that other painters have problems with their paint stiffening up with the cold. I’ve never had this issue. My Williamsburg titanium is a little bit stiffer perhaps, but nothing unmanageable. The only real difference I find painting outdoors in the snow is that I go through a lot more white and ultramarine.
If anyone else has any ideas or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I’m still trying to figure this out.