Winter may not be the first season that springs to mind when thinking about plein air painting, but as the seasons change, so too does the light, the atmosphere and the possibilities for painting. Mark McLaughlin is an artist who paints en plein air all year round. Here, he talks about his experiences and shares some helpful advice for painters considering braving the cold to embrace the charms of outdoor painting this winter.
Outdoor Painting in the Colder Months
Words and images by Mark McLaughlin
Winter can be an inspiring time to paint outdoors. In fact, I prefer this time of year when nature is stripped back and that feeling of seasons changing, the autumn colours still showing signs with leaves still clinging to the branches.
I love the bright winter mornings with long shadows and mist in the air, and late afternoons when the falling sun casts its last light on the city, creating jewel light effects.
You can get beautiful light, even on gloomy flat days which means you can paint for longer, not worrying about sudden light changes.
Winter weather can add so many moods and atmospheres which is something to exploit in your work. Lately I’ve been obsessed with puddles and their reflections. I’ve been caught out in the rain when painting on a bright morning and then, caught in a snow storm, a couple of winters back when the Beast from the East hit, and this was in my local park.
There’s also nothing like painting directly from the subject in front of you. It gives you spontaneity in your brush marks, refines your technique and creates a unique response to the subject which is different when working from photos. Spending time observing how light and colour can change and trying to capture this in your work is what gives your painting life.
Materials to Take
I like to try and keep it simple by not taking too much gear with me. I’m a passionate cyclist so I put everything I need on my bike. I’ve struggled taking big box easels so now I’ve a half-sized French style box easel from Jackson’s. It’s much lighter, stores brushes as well as paint tubes, and fits nicely in my pannier. Extra materials I take are turps and rags.
I also have a courier bag which can take up 18 x 14 in. primed boards. I do however, like to challenge myself and if the subject needs scale then I take a larger stretched canvas on my back.
I work in oils so always take another board to protect the wet paint surface, ideally the same size as the one I am working on. I use stretcher wedges taped together to separate the two and then tape them together, so no paint is smudged when you get home.
I don’t paint in the rain like some painters. It’s another consideration trying to keep water off oil paint which doesn’t mix well. But I’ve certainly been inspired using puddles and reflections in my work recently.
Staying Warm in the Cold
The biggest factor when standing in one spot for a while (possibly hours) is that you’re going to get cold, so other items to consider are warm clothing and plenty of layers. Keeping your head and feet warm is essential. And if there’s a windchill, a windproof jacket. I also wear fingerless mitts but I find they can be restrictive on your painting hand and so it can be a battle to keep your fingers from not going numb.
Talking of wind, if you’re working on larger canvas they can be prone to wind gusts which can flip your canvas and easel over. This has happened to me a few times, so now I try and weigh them down with my bag.
Taking a hot drink in a flask and some food also helps and lifts your spirits.
When standing on damp grass you can get cold quicker, so I take something to stand on; either newspaper or a small light decorators dust sheet is perfect. I‘ve read the Impressionists used to stand on straw to keep their feet from freezing.
Finding your Subject
I’m lucky to live in South London which gives me great access to many subjects to paint. I love painting in nature and urban scenes and my local parks are always a great source of inspiration to me, as well as the great views you get looking towards the city.
I like to take a sketch book around so that if something catches my eye, I can quickly make some notes recording the time of day and the light and then return to that spot to paint.
I will normally paint over a period of two hours or more and try and return to the same spot if I need to continue, especially with a larger canvas.
Winter Colour Palette
I use a limited colour palette when painting en plein air and I like to mix my own greens from yellows and blues with a bit of Raw Sienna or Yellow Ochre.
When mixing greys and greens in winter, I find I use more Cobalt Blue than Ultramarine Blue.
Other colours on my palette are: Burnt Sienna and Naples Yellow which offer great subtle colours in skies and grass. Also Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and Cerulean Blue. And I use Titanium White and Zinc White, which has a softer tone, for highlights.
Apart from turps I sometimes use Liquin Impasto which helps speed up drying (especially with whites which can take ages to dry) and keeps a nice crispness and texture of brush marks.
I take two palettes, one with the box easel and one I can hold with brushes. I find its easier holding a few brushes so you’re ready to change size and colour, and also the palette is better to mix colours on.
Painting in Public
It’s great to have people stopping or passing by to say something, hopefully complimentary! It can spur you on whilst painting. I’ve had some funny conversations with people especially young kids who are fascinated by what I’m doing and are not afraid to say what they think like “Is that all you’ve done!?”
If you don’t want to have a chat, holding a brush in your mouth usually helps and it’s always handy to have some cards with you if people want your details too.
I was painting outside just before the first lockdown but the consensus amongst painters was that to continue painting outside would perhaps come across as flouting certain rules, so I was painting views across my street and garden back then.
I’m continuing to paint now in my local parks, finding quieter spots out of the way of everyone, especially in these times! It certainly helps my own well being and hopefully others by seeing something creative.
About Mark McLaughlin
Born in Woking, Surrey in 1961, Mark studied at Birmingham School of Art and Design achieving BA (Hons) and a Masters Degree in Illustration.
Living and working in South London, the inspiration for Mark’s paintings is often in the everyday life he finds around him – the parks and streets of West Norwood, Herne Hill, Dulwich and beyond. The effects of changing light and seasons, plus the connection between man-made and the natural, are constant themes in his work.
Mark is based at Clockwork Studios, Camberwell – a vibrant and established community of artists – for some 20 years. He exhibits widely and has work in private collections in the UK, Europe, Australia and in the USA. His paintings have been selected in this year’s 2020 Royal Institute of Oil Painters and The Royal Society of Marine Artists Annual Exhibitions. Mall Galleries London. He has also exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Show on several occasions and has been shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize for the last two years.