I intend to paint plein air whilst in Antarctica but it’s very hard to know what, if anything, I’ll be able to capture as the landscape slides past at 17mph. For the last few months I have been doing a daily 20 minute painting to try and improve my speed, but, as a still somewhat leisurely plein air painter, I'm quite nervous. Hopefully, as I get used to the movement of the boat, or, when we stop for longer periods, I'll be able to get my teeth into some hearty studies but I'm taking the attitude that what will be will be in terms of painting.
The most obvious medium to take given the challenges would be watercolour; it’s quick to set-up, lightweight, non toxic and thinned with water (and vodka to stop it from freezing). Historically, this is what most artists travelling to the region used - including Edward Wilson who famously travelled with Scott on the fateful terra nova expedition. Several of his pieces can be seen at the fantastic #scottpolar Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.
But I have never got to grips with watercolours. My medium is the significantly less convenient, oils. I have only found a couple of other artists who have taken oils to the Antarctic and with good reason; they are difficult to fly with, they are messy, smelly, bulky and lengthy. But my heart would be nigh broken if I went to the Antarctic without them. So, they are coming.
Over the past few months I have been fine-tuning my palette down to the minimum amount of colours. Most airlines will accept oil paints if you provide the correct MSDS info, but solvents are a whole different thing. Even with an MSDS most solvents are rejected, and - what with there being a lack of art shops in the Antarctic - this is potentially a problem. I’m going to try my luck with Sennelier Green Oil – it’s 100% natural and is certified for flying. It’s odour-free and above the flying flashpoint, but nevertheless, customs officials can be very picky. If this fails, I will be relying on our brief stop at the Falklands. The DIY shop there stocks white spirit and, occasionally, turpentine. It will make me extremely unpopular on the boat but if it’s the only solvent I can get, then it’ll have to do. I’ll also be taking quick drying linseed oil and a washing line to peg out wet paintings.
I've spent a long time researching easels. My usual residency easel would be a full-box french easel, or, for more remote locations, a smaller antique pochade box. Both of these will be too bulky and the french easel has wing nuts and other small parts that might seize up in the cold. After lots of research I came across this robust little pochade by Newwave in USA. It is the size and weight of a laptop and has a built-in tripod mount, friction hinges (no wingnuts to navigate) and will hold a canvas up to 14" high. One amazing feature is the slim recess underneath the palette. I assume this was designed to reduce weight but my intended purpose is to slip in a hand warmer if it is really cold. Oil paint commonly becomes stiff and unmanageable in cold temperatures, so being able to keep it warm and malleable is a real bonus.
I was hoping to be able to test out all the gear in a walk-in freezer, but luckily the great British weather came to my rescue and provided exactly what I needed.
Brushes are perhaps the most difficult decision of all. Old favourites v's slick new performers? Included in the finalists are these five utterly crap ones that are like weird old friends nagging at me to come. If they don't behave they will have to walk the plank.
I'll be mostly boat-based so shouldn't have to transport wet canvases far but I made a single panel carrier for any on-shore days. I'll start off using canvas paper (horrible, but good until I get into the swing of things), then I'll upgrade to canvas boards (heavier and therefore of limited supply) and then, when I'm positively Turner-esque, I'll move to the top-notch linen which is so utterly gorgeous I hope it'll do the bulk of the work. I'll also take a variety of papers (white, toned and black), and pencils, charcoals and chalk. I’ve brought a long concertina sketchbook on which I hope to do a day-long recording of the landscape as it slides by (and I slide into hyperthermia) and a stash of blank postcards which I’ve primed (below) and will 'possibly' do a daily recording ‘of some sort’ on. Wish me luck!
The entire set-up (pochade, paints, brushes, panel holder etc) will fit into a day rucksack which, when painting, will clip under the tripod for days when Antarctica proves why it is the windiest continent on earth :)