By Brenda Murray
Not to be put off by winter weather, super talented and innovative, Montreal-based urban sketcher and watercolor artist, Shari Blaukopf, sketches from her car in winter once or twice a week.
“Painting in winter makes me love winter,” Shari said. “I used to dread winter but I love winter scenes. Everything looks better with snow on it. Snow makes designing with values much easier.”
But with the average temperature in Montreal in January and February dropping to between -4° and -14° C (7° to 25° F) even sketching inside a car has its challenges.
Shari's Five Tips for Car Sketching
1. Find the Right Spot
Finding the right spot on busy downtown streets can be tricky. Shari sets out early in the morning before the stores open. She selects either a corner parking spot or she parks right behind a bus stop so that her view won't be blocked by another car. Yes, parking behind a bus stop means her view will be blocked at intervals, but usually she only needs to wait a few minutes for the bus to pull away.
“It happened once that I parked behind a no parking zone and it turned out to be the most popular parking spot in town! Everything pulled in front of me--a snow blower, a garbage truck, people getting coffee—it was a little crazy!”
In the winter, Shari looks for low buildings so that she can see the whole structure through the front windowscreen. She enjoys painting dépanneurs in old Montreal. A dépanneur is a corner store sometimes called “Mom and Pop shops”. Studies show that over the last few decades, 30 per cent of dépanneurs in Quebec have disappeared so capturing them now seems like a really good idea. Shari likes sketching them because they’re usually covered in colourful signage—giant red Coke signs or other brands. These signs provide a spot of colour in what might be an otherwise dull view. Her favourite neighbourhoods in Montreal are Saint-Henri and Villeray.
2. Warm up the Car
Shari warms up her car really well first. She blasts the heat while she chooses her sketching location. And when she’s settled in to her spot she turns the car off hoping to finish her sketch before the temperature drops too low. But she often has to contend with foggy windows, frozen feet and paint that won’t dry. Sometimes she turns on the car just long enough to get a blast of heat to dry her paint.
Shari doesn’t feel the need for fingerless gloves. “I’m comfortable in my car,” she said. “Thank goodness for seat heaters!”
3. Arrange Your Instruments
Shari is right-handed so she prefers to sit in the driver’s seat. She makes the passenger seat level so that she can rest her palette there. She uses the cup holder for her water and balances her sketchbook on the steering wheel.
4. Work Fast
Some artists use vodka as a kind of paint anti-freeze because the high alcohol level means it won’t freeze until the temperature drops to well below 0. But Shari says she’s not really a “vodka person”. Some artists swear by hand warmer packets available in outdoor stores, but Shari goes without.
“I just try to work really fast,” she says. “At minus 30 degrees paint still crystalizes. Sometimes my paint turns to slush—It’s just too cold. My advice is to warm up the car enough to prevent that from happening.”
Sometimes Shari uses her sketchbook as studies for bigger paintings, along with photos she takes during winter walks. When she’s working from a photo she likes to begin on the painting right away while the colour is still fresh in her mind. She finds it hard to paint from a photo out of season.
5. Remember to turn off your ignition
Inspired by my interview with Shari, I decided to try sketching in my car. I set out on a blustery day in January in Ontario. I settled on an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and found a spot on the side of the road to park. The sun was shining and that helped to slow down the drop in temperature inside my car. After about an hour I was finished. So was my car battery! I had forgotten to take the key out of the ignition and my battery was dead. Luckily I have CAA, a roadside assistance service.
Shari admits that she has done the same thing. “Brenda, you are not alone,” she said. “I have done that three times! No, make that four times. I’ve left the wipers on more than once! Good thing we both have CAA. Now I remove the key from the ignition and leave it in the console beside me!”
How to Paint Snow
Painting snow is all about painting the shadows on the snow because the snow itself is the whiteness of the paper.
Shari says it’s important to plan carefully. She doesn’t use masking or frisket. She tries to paint the shapes that are under the snow.
That high light/dark contrast is really key to a dramatic, colourful and eye-catching painting. On dull cloudy days there may be no discernable shadow on the snow. So when the sun is shining, Shari runs out the door with her yellow lab Alice to see what she can find.
“It is important to learn how to mix greys,” Shari says and she shares her colour mixing expertise in a new book called The Urban Sketching Handbook, Working with Colour coming out in April 2019.
Her go-to purple shadow on snow is a combination of cobalt blue and cerulean blue (Winsor Newton) with just the tiniest touch of Alizarin crimson on the tip of her brush.