Since a trip to Evan-Thomas Creek early in December I’ve been thinking about plein-air painting in the winter. We went there for the ice climbing, but the weather had been so cold (it was -19C/-2F that day and had dipped below -40 with windchill earlier in the week) that the ice was prohibitively hard and brittle, making Chantilly Falls seem like something much more daunting than a WI2. We went about a third of the way before we decided we had picked the wrong day.
Most of the ice climbs in that area are above my level (this is only my second season ice climbing), but it’s easily the most scenic place I’ve gone for that particular activity.The hike in as far as Chantilly Falls is supposed to take around an hour, but it took somewhat longer in the deep snow. It had been a few days since the last snowfall and several others had used the trail, but in every direction the snow lay heavy, undisturbed and still sparkling, weighing down the branches of the trees. Approaching the falls, the trail descended into the creek bed and followed its meanderings. The open areas afforded majestic views of Mount Kidd and the broad-shouldered Wedge, with tendrils of brilliant snow blowing from their summits. Where the forest came closer to the creek as it rounded a bend, I half expected to see a homey beavers’ dam straight out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
All this…and I forgot my camera.
So I need to go back there with some way of recording images. I know people do paint en plein air in the winter. Even in Canada! They just don’t use acrylics. The bonding medium doesn’t cure below a certain temperature, and is damaged by freezing. I’d heard of using glycerine to lower the freezing point of watercolors and gouache, but it won’t solve this problem with acrylics. They end up taking a very long time to dry, and turn grainy and retain some stickiness, both of which are signs that the paint has not cured properly and won’t be as durable as paint needs to be.
The preferred medium for winter plein air is oil paint, but the gum arabic used as a binder in watercolor and gouache doesn’t have the same problem with cold that acrylic polymers do. The challenge is to keep the water from freezing. Glycerine lowers the freezing point of water, as do various forms of alcohol. I’ll probably try glycerine first, since gouache dries extremely quickly and glycerine is a humidifying agent, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
I purchased a few tubes of M. Graham & Co. Artists’ Gouache to experiment with, since they were a very reasonable price, but also a brand I’d heard good things about. I was also intrigued by the fact that they contain honey! Sugar is another substance that lowers the freezing point of water/paint…but I haven’t gotten that far yet. I chose mostly colors I use regularly in acrylics: titanium white, ivory black, ultramarine blue, naphthol red, and raw umber. Sap green and gamboge I haven’t used in acrylics, but I think the light, warm sap green will mix well with the umber when I need something darker, and the gamboge (a mix of two synthetic pigments, PY 151 and PO 62) is a warm yellow, like an opaque version of the Turner’s yellow I’ve been using in glazes on my current acrylic WIP.
I wanted to see how gouache compared to acrylic before taking it outside. This is based on one of the photos I took of the sunset over Burstall Pass.
I underestimated the potency of the blue in the sky, which was the first layer I put down. I worked from background to foreground, as I usually do with acrylics, with just a few pencil guidelines under the gouache to establish the composition. A little gouache goes a very long way when mixed with moderate amounts of water. The Canson Montval 140-lb cold pressed paper, in block form with sealed edges, cockled a little bit in the middle of the painting, but much less than anything I’ve ever done with watercolors. Most of the paint dried to a matte finish, with a few more satiny spots where I might have overworked it or used too much water. Some brushstrokes are visible, but because the texture of gouache is pretty much completely liquid, there are no real impasto effects like I enjoy producing with acrylics.
I did a bit of blending in the clouds by re-wetting some of the edges and rubbing them a bit with my fingers, and there are a couple of spots where I might still do more of this. Unlike acrylic paint, gouache is not waterproof after it dries. It’s a good thing it’s possible to re-wet it, because it dries very rapidly. Faster than acrylic paint in the sun! I’ve never had issues with acrylic paint drying on my palette, but gouache will. It’s not a big deal, though—you just re-wet it.
The re-wettability means that while it’s possible to put down a couple of layers of gouache over each other (like I did with the snow on the trees, which shows how much covering power this stuff has), caution is required and it’s essential that the old layer be completely dry before you apply a new one.
Overall, I find the experience of painting with gouache to be more like acrylics than watercolors, in spite of the difference in texture and the difficulty in blending, which I definitely need to work on. Next, I need to find the time to take it outside.