Cold Weather Urban Sketching: Tips from the Pros

[By Urban Sketchers in the far north] Have you sat home through many months of the year waiting for ‘urban sketching weather’ to reappear? Or maybe you live in a part of the world that just never gets really cold? Or you’re in the Southern Hemisphere and the timing on this post makes you grin smugly? Whichever way, surely you’ve wondered how all those snow-filled urban sketches are made? I’ve wondered for sure, so I asked some of my favorite cold-weather sketchers to share their best tips on how it’s done. Here they are. If you’ve got more tips to share, add a comment, we’d love to hear from you! 

– Suhita (sketch above by Shari Blaukopf)

Marc Taro Holmes in Montreal

Boots on the Ground: Your boots are the #1 most important piece of gear. A pair of winter boots you’re comfortable walking in will not be good enough. Standing still for any length of time sucks the heat through your soles. Look for boots that are too heavy to be comfortable. They should look ridiculous. That’s what you want. Sorrel or Baffin are good brands.

If it gets to be -20C I have an ancient pair of Baffin Vanguards inherited from my father. My 30-year-old pair are not as uber as the current model, but hey – free is free. It’s overkill for me to own a pair of arctic exploration grade boots I might only wear two or three times a year- but if you want to be out all day and have absolutely no reason to complain – this is the only answer.

Pry my Brush from my Cold Dead Fingers: I find a bulky glove really interferes with my painting. Sometimes that means I’ll just try to tough it out and let my fingers freeze. But you can only do that for a few minutes at a time, so it’s not a real solution.

Therefore – a new option I’m trying this winter: Freehands Thinsulate gloves. They’re not the warmest, but they’re snug fitting and flexible – and have a fore-finger and thumb that flips back, with a little magnetic catch to keep the finger-end tucked away. It’s impressive how much just that finger and thumb help with brush dexterity. I’ve been told, when it gets too cold for even these, to put a knitted mitten or sock over your entire gloved hand, and push the brush handle through the knit. I’ll report back on the validity of that suggestion in a few weeks.


Marcia Milner-Brage in Cedar Falls

You don’t have to be out in the cold to sketch the winter outside. In the past, I sketched winter from my unheated, parked car. Or I stood on street corners wearing thick-soled boots, wool socks, long underwear, and a down coat, gripping my 5B pencil and pocket-size Moleskine with fingerless gloves. Then about ten years ago, I realized this wasn’t fun.

Now, I draw winter from inside, looking out. Here, a snowman in my neighbor’s backyard as seen from an upstairs bedroom window.

The only thing that limits me is when it gets so cold that the windows frost over and I can’t see out.

Me dressed for a walk in my northeast Iowa neighborhood on a gloriously sunny, sub-zero Fahrenheit day. 


Fred Lynch in New Hampshire

As a native New Englander, you’d think that I’d be well-versed in winter sketching, but only lately have I dealt with the cold in my work.

For winter drawing, I switch from usual medium of ink to pencil because it’s more portable and doesn’t invite issues of freezing liquids.
I used Faber-Castell Polychrome Schwartz Black pencil in the drawing below. I like it because it’s not very smudgy and gives a nice range of values.

After trying fingerless gloves, I found it’s better for me to simply draw bare-handed – even in sub-zero temperatures. When I hold the pencil with fingerless gloves, it feels unfamiliar – at the wrong angle – slightly off. The odd angle hinders my familiar control of the pencil. Instead, my winter glove is put on and taken off, as needed for warmth.

Center Harbor, New Hampshire

This drawing was worked on first outside and then inside my car. I don’t like starting a work in the car, because the perspective is so limiting. I like to walk around and look wider to select and frame a picture. However, when the cold is as bitter as it was the day of this drawing, a warm car was necessary for success for a sketcher like me, who works a long time on an image. It was probably necessary for survival as well.


Shari Blaukopf in Montreal

Sketching in Montreal in winter is not always the easiest thing to do. I love to paint the outdoors, but I can’t paint outdoors, so I do the next best thing: I paint from my car. I am sometimes asked if I sit in the driver’s or the passenger’s seat. Well, as you can see, it’s the former, for two reasons. One is that I use the steering wheel as a support for my sketchbook. Secondly, I am right handed and that gives me easy access to the palette (which is on the passenger seat) and water container (which is in the car’s cup holder).

A few tips for painting in your car in the winter:

1. Warm your car up well before you go out. If I do that, even after I turn the engine off, the car stays warm for a long time, allowing me to complete my sketch.

2. Dress for the occasion: warm boots and socks, long underwear, a hat. Keep the jacket thin and not too bulky.

3. Turn on the engine occasionally to dry the sketch (with the car heater) and warm yourself up.

4. Most importantly, don’t leave anything electrical on in the car. I have drained the battery on more than one occasion from leaving the wipers or the seat heaters on.

There are some days that I can’t paint in the car, but those are infrequent. When the thermometer goes too low (-20C), the washes crystallize on the palette even in a preheated car, and then I have to paint indoors. And on days when it’s raining so hard I can’t see out the front window, I find a nice café and sketch from there.

So that’s my setup. Nothing complicated, really, but good enough to allow to me sketch year round.


Nina Johansson in Stockholm

I mix my watercolor water with vodka when the temperature is below freezing. I use the cheapest kind of vodka. It’s important to use spirits with no colour or spices, since it might otherwise get sticky on the pages. Clean vodka just evaporates, doesn’t even smell strange once it’s gone from the paper. The colder the weather, the more vodka in the mix, usually at least 50/50. I bring a little bottle of this with me, and fill up a waterbrush with it. I don’t use my good paintbrushes, the liquor isn’t good for my brushes.

Watercolors act a little bit different than usual with this: they sometimes half freeze, and then I get a little crystal pattern in large washes (you can see a little of that in the sky in the cityscape above) – that’s when I know I have to add more vodka to the mix. If the mix contains too much water, the paints will freeze, or make some kind of slush on both palette (see photo below) and paper, but once you get inside again, it´s fine, it just dries up pretty quickly. I don´t mind the funny crystal patterns going on, really, it is an interesting feature in the sketch. 

I switch from ink pens to pencil. Pencil is really the only thing that works when it gets really cold and the fineliners freeze. A pencil, thick mittens, and then the watercolors. That’s what works for me. Which makes for sloppier sketches, less details, which is usually a good thing anyway. I love sketching in the cold. It’s a good challenge. Just a pity that my fingers freeze so quickly, in spite of gloves, mittens and whatnot, so I can’t stay out for very long at a time.


Amber Sausen in Minneapolis

I really enjoy winter sketching as a way to challenge the notion that one must be skiing, sledding or snowshoeing if you’re outside.

Vodka in brush pen: I’ve tried various ratios of alcohol to water, but when it’s -10F (-23C) any water just creates a slush in the brush bristles. I load the brush with straight vodka. It will still get slushy, but the alcohol buys you a little more time before you get iced out.

Fat tools: Sometimes the hassle of trying to hold onto a sketchbook and palette gets to be too much. Then I skip the paints and instead use a dry media or alcohol-based marker. Bonus: A thick tool is easier to hold in mittened hands.

Attire: Keep your hands protected! On subzero sketching adventures I always keep my stretchy gloves (the cheap dollar store kind) on and take frequent breaks to stick my sketching hand back into a bigger mitten with a chemical warmer inside.

Subjects: be realistic about the amount of time you can sketch before your hand (and the rest of you) gets cold. Stay safe. Frostbite is no fun.

Keep a thermos of hot cocoa with you to warm you up and celebrate your successful winter sketching adventure!


If you’d like to see even more examples of winter sketching by these artists and others go here.


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