The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhogs, Winter, and Art

Well, folks, Punxsutawney Phil emerged this morning to see his shadow in Pennsylvania, which means that winter will last another six weeks (that is, if you can believe groundhogs). For those of you who aren't familiar with America's fascination with rodent weather prediction, it's actually based upon a German tradition which holds that if a hibernating animal sees its shadow on Feb. 2 — the Christian holiday of Candlemas — winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says spring will come early.

For me, six more weeks of winter means six more weeks of confinement in my studio pursuing the elusive masterpiece. I don't mind this, but it would be nice to spend some time in the garden and hiking in the warm sun.

Contemplating winter reminds me of several famous paintings that depict an unusual climatological event. The first one was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow, in 1565:

The second painting, by Emanuel Luetze in 1851, depicts Washington Crossing the Delaware, an event that occurred in December 1776.

For those of you who are familiar with the present-day winters in both Belgium and the Delaware River region, you know that they aren't as severe as the ones depicted in these two paintings. Were the two artists exaggerating for effect? Did Bruegel cover the ground with thick heavy snow to make the painting more interesting? Did Luetze put large icebergs in the Delaware to make Washington and his troops appear more courageous? No.

In fact, these two paintings span the two ends of a climate event known by science as The Little Ice Age, which began during the middle of the 16th century and ended in the middle of the 19th century. During that time, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dipped several degrees Celsius causing severe and prolonged winters and an expansion of sea ice and glaciers. The cause of this long cold spell was a solar event called the Maunder Minimum, when the sun's magnetic field was relatively stable resulting in fewer than normal sunspots. Therefore, the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth was diminished and temperatures plummeted.

The arts captured this event. Dickens described the cold, harsh winters in his books and Western artists captured them in their paintings. This current winter in my hemisphere, has some effect on my paintings. Being confined indoors means that I'm turning inward to examine my ideas a little more carefully. There are few distractions. However, I'm not tempted to begin painting winter scenes ... even if there are six more weeks of winter to endure.

What about you? How has winter affected your work?


Mark Sheeky said...

For me it makes the oil thicker but drying times slow down! It reveals why Flemish masters used lots of turpentine in their media while Italian and Spanish ones excluded it.

Personally the cold of this year has caused a lot of pain in my hands and so I'll appreciate the spring all the greater. I'm not as bad as poor old Bruegel though!

I'd not seen the Washington painting. From here the water looks like cloth. I wonder if the artist used something silky as a trick... Thanks for posting it.

M said...

Fascinating information on climate changes Kathy. Interesting that it is represented in both art and literature.

I paint less in winter and more in summer. I know that is because I do not find my studio in the city all that inviting, whereas in summer I have an expanse of ocean and meadow and great north light and inviting walls to draw me in. I create about two thirds of my work at my summer house. Winter is a time for me to fight my way to the studio in my basement.

-Don said...

Kathy, You speak of this thing called winter... just what is that? :-D Vegas in the winter would probably be considered warm spring weather to you, Mark and Margaret.

With that said, I still find myself each January and February in a hibernatory cycle. I choose to stay inside and really have to push myself to head outside or do anything constructive. Except paint, that is... My most productive months the past couple years have been January. It was the same way in college - in January and February I got some WORK done... I have no reasoning for this, it's just cyclical trend I've noticed in my life.

I found your post quite fascinating. I remember this coming up briefly in one of my art history classes, but I never followed up on it. Putting this into a modern context reinforces my notion that the "global warming" phenomenon could be another of Mother Earth's cycles. Our recorded history is too short to put too much relevance in 10, 20 or even 100 year weather trends. Don't get me wrong - I believe we should be better stewards, but I also believe this big terrarium will continue to find ways to keep on keeping on... now, whether mankind manages to survive with continued poor stewardship is something only time will tell.

Uh oh, I just did something else I find happens a lot during these winter months - I chew on notions and extrapolate ad nauseum...


Stan Kurth said...

I love winters here in Peoria, Arizona. My work habits don't change much throughout the year.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,

For some reason, this winter I keep thinking of tulips. Maybe because I live along the wet, gray Pacific Northwest coast, I imagine color.

I particularly like the Bruegel. I saw the Bruegel's in Vienna and was impressed by how small the works were.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Katharine,

I was delighted to escape recently and see and experience new surroundings, even though in part I found myself in the midst of a storm.

Mental creativity continues, while actual creative production seems to come to a halt.

So as the mind continues to create and develop possible projects, it will be interesting to see what ideas will actually take form in the spring.

Warmest regards

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - Sorry to learn that winter has affected your hands! Not good for an artist. Hope spring arrives early in the U.K.! Thanks for your comments.

Hi Margaret - I can see where spring/summer is a more inspiring time for you. You and I have opposite painting schedules! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Don - I almost forgot how warm it is in Vegas! Guess I'm too entrenched in the cold and snow. As for climate - I've got plenty to say about that but will spare you. I used to teach climatology and oceanography in addition to geology/paleontology. I was interested in Earth's long-term climate cycles (thousands and millions of years) and you're absolutely correct! Earth is rarely as cold as it is today. This is an anomaly. Thanks for commenting.

Hi Stan - You, like Don, live in a wonderful part of the country. I've been admiring your "Canyon Series" posted online as well as your drawings. Masterful and inspiring! Thanks for your comment.

Hi Peggy - I've never seen Bruegel's work in person and didn't realize how small it is. Thank you for mentioning that, and - I like MsKitty and her tulips!

Hi Egmont- I'm interested to know what you'll produce this spring. Like you, I spend a lot of time creating in my head. Lately, I've been trying to express some new thoughts through experimentation with the hopes of creating a new series. The struggle continues. Thanks for your comment.

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hw (hallie) farber said...

Seasons don't seem to affect me. I work inside with windows nearby; as long as I have heat and air conditioning, I'm okay.

Angela said...

I enjoy our long, harsh winters less every year - but they have everything to do with what and how I paint!

I'm an avid gardener, a fact, I very rarely come inside at all during the summer months...I very rarely even sit down! It's such a short - but gorgeous - season for us that I want to soak up everything about it and I run around like a maniac with my camera trying to...

...then winter comes and forces me to take a seat. I don't paint winter scenes at all, I look back over all of those reference photos and memories and do what I can to capture all of that brightness with my paint. Saves my sanity till May/June (you never know when Spring will start up here) rolls around again...

Angela said...

Sometimes I think that since my inspiration comes from my garden and the outdoors it would make sense to live somewhere with a longer season for doing that...
...but if I'm honest with myself, I'm not sure that if I did I'd ever sit down long enough to actually get any of it down...I'd always be chasing around trying to see the next beautiful, inspiring thing!

Barbara Tibbets said...

Just found your blog and had to laugh at 6 more weeks of winter. As Stan said, here in AZ we can have a regular work schedule all year. Except we all paint indoors through the brutal summer! When will you do a workshop here. Feb through March are a delight! 70s, low 80s.
Barbara in Chandler, AZ

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - I know what you mean! I'm tired of the cold. Brrrr....

Hi Hallie - I wish I had your tolerance for temperature change!

Hi Angela - like you, I'm an avid outdoors person and love gardening, hiking, boating ... you name it.

Thanks for all your comments!

Unknown said...

Hi Barbara- I'd love to come to Arizona and teach a painting workshop! Especially in winter or
spring. Let me know if you have a suitable venue and I'll see what I can do.

Dan Kent said...

Hmmm. Well I'm here in Miami, Florida, and last time I had an opinion on the matter I was pummeled.

So I'll just say this, "Gosh, darn, you're da smartest artist I know!"

Celeste Bergin said...

Thanks for another interesting post!
I like winter because it is a nice break from all the outdoor painting I do in the summer. My studio is the great outdoors for 5 months of the year. Plein air painting is frustrating and not always successful--paintings in the studio are more predictable. I just love the months I spend "noodling" around until it is time to go outside again.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - ooooo! I'm envious. I'll bet it's hoppin' in Miami right now with football fans!

Hi Celeste - love your landscape paintings! The time you spend both in and out of your studio is well-spent. I'm not much of an outdoors painter, but I do love being out in nature.

Thanks all!