Urban Sketching with a Twist
Now that I have your attention (ahem), I can come clean. I’m not talking about drinking cosmopolitans or martinis — I’ll save that for a different article. This is in regards to using vodka as an additive to your watercolor.
Word on the street is that you can add a little vodka to your paint so that it doesn’t freeze when there is a winter chill in the air as you urban sketch and paint en plein air.
Urban sketcher Shari Blaukopf is quite familiar with the tactics artists have to employ to paint in the heart of winter as she is a Canadian urban sketcher who practices her art year-round.
Living in Montreal and sketching in all seasons means Shari spends at least half the year drawing from her car. Palette balanced next to the gear shift, water bottle in the cup holder, sketchbook propped against the steering wheel–this is her normal setup from November until April.
Sometimes it gets pretty cold, but that means she simply sketches faster, and with watercolor you want the washes to be fresh looking. There are usually only one or two days in the winter when the temperature is so low that the paint freezes on her brush and she is forced to finish sketching at home.
Orrrrr…add the vodka
Artists who add alcohol to their watercolors should use a clear liquid like grain alcohol, vodka or gin. Liquor that’s 64 proof freezes at 10 below zero, and 84-proof liquor freezes at 30 below zero. Artists sometimes add up to 20 percent of 84-proof liquor to their watercolors with decent success.
Not all pigments behave alike when in contact with alcohol. Consequently, if a color is composed of two pigments, one of those pigments may bleed into the alcohol while the other may not, resulting in a separation effect. Also, you may notice difficulty in lifting colors whose dyes are more soluble in alcohol because the alcohol enhances those dyes’ staining properties.
So if you are embarking on a cold-weather art expedition and are going to try adding vodka as a pigment antifreeze, keep experimentation foremost in your mind. If you want, mix a test batch of colors with your liquor of choice so you can see how they react. Or simply embrace the unknown and enjoy the process (and the spirits!).
Watercolor Tips for Winter Minus the Vodka
+Give the cold a chance. You might discover you love painting winter scenes, especially on a sunny day when the shadows on the fresh snow are purply-blue. There is nothing more beautiful. So stay in the sun and use hand and feet warmers if you have them!
+If you are jittery from the cold or just tackling a challenging subject, work with pencil first. Sketching architecture for example. Do the diagonals in pencil first before adding pen strokes.
+Remember you can always start a sketch but if the weather turns inhospitable, you take it indoors to finish. Shoot photo references and take down a few color notes in your sketchbook and you’ll be set.
+Precision brushstrokes might not be the easiest thing to achieve while painting in the cold, so let your intuitive side take over. Paint intuitively and not specifically. You can start to learn all the whats and hows of this with Intuitive Art Explorations with Betsy Dillard Stroud.
Artistic Antifreeze, for Watercolors Only?
Alcohol is an effective antifreeze for watercolor, and if you use the alcohol judiciously, your work can remain archival. (Read more about using alcohol as antifreeze here.)
That led us to ask if watercolorists get to have all the fun, so we inquired whether you can also mix vodka with water-mixable oils.
Answer: Manufacturers do not explicitly recommend adding alcohol to their paints. But, if you are solvent-sensitive to mineral spirits and the like, experiment with the alcohol, but don’t add more than 20% or so. It may help water-mixable oils to “flow” to a point, but the paint does not always dissolve well into ethanol. The paint appears to soften, which may be enough for your purpose, but can become a bit gummy.
When using water-mixable oils in very cold temperatures, best to use turpentine or mineral spirits as your “antifreeze,” not alcohol. Additionally, 84 proof liquor freezes at -34.44°C (-30°F), whereas Turpentine freezes at -59.15°C (-74.47°F), and Mineral Spirits at -70°C (-94°F). Also, don’t use any acrylic-based mediums in freezing temperatures. Alkyd mediums may be functional, but traditional oil-solvent mixtures are likely easier to work with.
Contributions to this article include excerpts from Archisketcher.