Cold Weather Tips

12 Tips for Painting in Cold Weather

by Beth Ellis

During the winter, I enjoy working on larger, indoor studio paintings for the most part, although I still cannot resist taking my paints outdoors after a fresh coat of fallen snow. Here are some tips for those who choose to venture outside for winter painting:


Check the temperature. Obviously, temperature is a factor when heading outdoors to paint. Personally, I find 22 degrees or above can be quite comfortable. Anything colder than 22 can be somewhat distracting–a lot of energy will go into trying to stay warm. I have painted outdoors when the temperatures were in the teens. At those times, I count on a few breaks in a warm car to get me through.

Eat a good breakfast. The cold will burn up calories faster than usual, so a good breakfast (hot oatmeal, toast, tea, etc.) will provide fuel to keep you warm. I also pack some additional carbs for the session, along with a thermos of hot herbal tea. Watch your caffeine intake on a cold morning–caffeine will constrict the blood vessels and make you colder.

Dress in warm layers. I believe in layering clothes as if I were going downhill skiing. I like the combination of silk, cotton, wool, then nylon (in that order). This combination is lightweight, warm, and wind-resistant. Wear insulated boots to keep the toes warm. I have a pair of Sorel rubber boots that have a thick felt insert. The combination of felt and rubber works like a charm! Keeping your hands warm is a must. I wear a thin pair of knitted gloves and a wool sock over that. This helpful tip was passed on to me by John Traynor, and it works quite well. On especially cold days, I’ll use chemical hand-warmers layered between the sock and the glove, in the palm of my hand. I poke the handle of my paintbrush through the wool sock, holding it with my gloved hand. Finally, I wear a winter hat that covers my head and ears, and has a visor (the winter sun can still be quite bright).

Be sure to choose a time of day when the light is at its best. I choose early morning. The pink morning light in the middle of winter is gorgeous. This means somewhere between 7 and 8 a.m. on a January morning.

Choose a location protected from the wind. A sunny spot in the winter is helpful, just as a shady spot in the summer can be.

Set up your easel to avoid direct sun on your painting surface and palette. By doing this, your paintings will naturally come alive when you bring them inside rooms with typical indoor lighting.

Premix a strong, cool grey to add to your winter palette. I use a lavenderish-blue created by mixing French ultramarine with permanent alizarin and some white, using a palette knife.

Keep your medium more fluid than you would on warm days. I use a combination of stand oil and turpentine. My summer medium might be a 60/40 blend, whereas my winter medium may be closer to 50/50.

Thin out your whites. White paint tends to be the common denominator in many color mixes, so I like to be sure that it is fluid enough that it doesn’t slow down the painting process. With a palette knife, I mix a few drops of additional medium into my white paint before I begin a painting session.

Remember that white snow is not really white. We all know that white snow is a reflective surface that is made up of many hues and values. I like to think in terms of cool and warm when painting with shades of white. Playing cool colors against warm colors will make a snowy scene sing!

Observe your subject before diving in. What impressed you about the subject? Take a mental snapshot and keep that as your focus.

Enjoy! Painting outdoors in the winter may not be for everyone, but it is indeed special. There is nothing quite like a winter palette! Keep your painting fresh, clean, and spontaneous.

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