My copy of In the Sierras continues apace, but I’m feeling as if there’s a disconnect between the way I enjoy working, and the techniques that get the kind of results I admire so much.
One of the limitations I’m facing is that I’m working from Wikipedia’s image of the painting, which means I can’t see brushstrokes and textures. Bierstadt’s work is generally not all that “painterly,” meaning that he worked in a very detailed way and tried, as is common in many realist or classical styles, to minimize how much brushwork was visible in most areas of the finished product. I’m looking forward to doing the foreground because it does look a bit bolder and looser, and should hopefully take a little less time than the mountains and the sky!
I’m not sure how much glazing Bierstadt used, and how much impasto, but glazes are the way to produce a luminous haze like the one in the background here. It is, however, a time-consuming way to paint. I’ve lost track of how many layers of zinc white I’ve put down over the sky, and there have been two or three sessions where I’ve put down several glazes, just to adjust the values a little bit more, and come away feeling as if I hadn’t changed the appearance of the painting all that much. When I’m not enjoying the process, it gets harder to make painting the priority that it deserves to be, and so I’m moving on to the water now (and from here on in, holding off on the ultramarine).
I also don’t like starting too many projects at once. Inevitably some of them will get neglected; around Christmas for a couple of weeks I had three things on the go, but only two of them went anywhere during that stretch of time.
Plein air seems to be the best way to take a short break from the thing in the studio, without derailing its progress. On Monday, then, I finally headed out to Big Hill Springs Provincial Park with my little gouache kit.
I talked about the colors and paper I chose in Part 1 of the experiment. I’m still using my acrylic brushes for now. I have a box smaller than my elementary school pencil case to keep it all in, with some disposable palette liners to put inside the lid for color mixing, and a couple of squeezable bottles for additives.
Vodka is one thing I’d heard of mixing with the water to keep it from freezing, but it’s not something I usually keep on hand. I did have rubbing alcohol, which my brother reminded me is cheaper anyway. I mixed it about 3-to-1 with the water in my main container, filled one of the little bottles with extra just in case, and headed out here.
It was about -14 C (7 F) when I left the house, and I think it got a degree or two warmer over the course of the afternoon. I only stayed for an hour and a half or so, and didn’t get as much done as I would have liked because of difficulties with my setup. For one thing, a separate palette would probably be easier to hold than the lid of my box. Ideally, since this requires so much more water than acrylics, I’d like to be able to attach my water container to the palette. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to attach anything to my portable easel, but a new one of those won’t be in the budget any time soon.
I dropped my whole box twice. The tubes of gouache got quite stiff and I’m thinking a small pair of pliers would be a good thing to bring next time. And finally, I spilled my water on my glove, and that was what sent me home.
The water didn’t freeze. I did have some ice crystals on the lip of the container, but that wasn’t a problem. The paint did take considerably longer to dry in the cold than it does at room temperature, but the end result looked and felt mostly normal. I’ve heard of watercolorists getting ice crystals on the paper because the paint froze after application, but that also didn’t happen. Nevertheless, I can’t recommend using rubbing alcohol to prevent gouache from freezing.
Strange things happened to the paint on the palette and on my brush. The ivory black behaved fairly well, but as I added more titanium white to the mix, it got progressively stranger. first, I noticed it was getting stiff on the palette, which might have been due to the cold, although it didn’t look or feel as if ice was forming in it. Then, white pigment particles began separating out on my brush, and seeming to want to stay there. They didn’t come off easily in the rinsing water or on the paper. I didn’t see any black or ultramarine blue particles clinging to the bristles, just white. This makes me think (hope) it isn’t just a matter of the paints starting to separate in the cold, but something specific about the interaction of titanium dioxide and rubbing alcohol, which, if I remember correctly, is less dense than water.
I didn’t finish the painting, although once again, what’s on the paper now looks normal. It was a valuable first attempt, because I now know what problems I need to solve next time I try plein air in winter weather. I’ll be trying glycerine as an antifreeze next. And then, for the first time in my life, I might have to buy some vodka.