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Making Art in Antarctica

I was recently asked indirectly through a circle of artist friends to advise someone about to take a trip to Antarctica on what problems she might encounter and what art supplies might be the best to bring. I thought that what I wrote might be of interest to my blog readers:

Hi Deb,
I was the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s 1992/1993 Antarctic Artists & Writers Program grant. It allowed me to spend three months drawing and painting the landscapes and wildlife in Antarctica. I was there during the peak of the Antarctic summer (December through February). Temperatures ranged on average between -10 degrees F to 45 degrees F. The lowest temperature I experienced was -64 degrees F but I did not attempt to make any art at that extreme temperature — I just took photographs.

The NSF trips were not my first to Antarctica. I initially went to Antarctica in 1989 on a cruise ship. Prior to that trip I had the same questions as you about producing cold weather art. By good fortune and coincidence the Pacific Asia Museum here in Pasadena, California was hosting a show of Peter Adams’ landscapes of the Himalayas. I contacted Peter and he gave me some good advice.

“If you’re planning to use watercolor, buy some of those tiny bottles of vodka at the airport,” he said. “In the field, mix a little vodka in with your water to keep it from freezing. Then drink a little yourself to keep you from freezing.”

Peter was making a joke (you don’t want to drink alcohol in the field in Antarctica; it dehydrates you; this could compound your problems of being in a place drier than the Sahara), but in actuality, as far as watercolor goes, the vodka trick works. Peter gave me even better advice, though: Bring pastels. No freezing problems whatsoever. Peter even gave me my first set of pastels to take to Antarctica (he’s one of the kindest, most generous artists on the planet).

So here is what I use when I go to Antarctica: I take a box of pastels and pads of good pastel paper for my landscapes. I also bring a tiny portable watercolor kit made by Winsor Newton and use that for some landscapes, too. It is compact yet opens up to reveal cakes of paint, a tiny brush (I bring a couple of bigger brushes, too), a mixing palette, a water cup and a waterbottle. The watercolor cakes are removable so I customize it and substitute and reorganize the colors that come with the kit with a palette that is more appropriate to Antarctica. To paint and draw the wildlife I use watercolors, black and brown Sharpies (very permanent markers; I use all different sizes), white gouache, Prismacolor pencils and both toned paper pads and white watercolor paper pads. The black Sharpies and the white gouache on toned paper are perfect for rendering penguins. I made a lot of wildlife field studies using watercolor (don’t forget the little bottle of vodka!) on heavy watercolor paper; I also made fine line drawings with my Sharpies and colored them in with watercolor. I never had trouble with the ink in my Sharpies freezing.

Also, bring Patagonia polypropylene gloves to wear when it gets cold. I hate wearing gloves when I draw but these are pretty thin gloves and, hence, not as much of a nuisance as regular gloves.

When I scuba dive under the ice I don’t draw; I take photos (Fuji ASA 100 slide film). If you plan to take photos on the surface of Antarctica (and you’d be crazy not to), bring five cameras and lots of spare batteries. Most of your cameras will permanently break or malfunction in the cold (except for the cheap ones, usually) and batteries have a very, very short life in extreme cold weather. If you shoot slide film I highly recommend Fuji Velvia, a professional super fine grained film. If you use Velvia you won’t need any filters or polarizers, either. Always bring much more film than you think you’ll need. I shot over 6,000 slides my last trip there — and, believe it or not, nearly every picture was an irreplaceable gem. The lighting conditions are often fantastic in Antarctica.

Here at home in Pasadena I regularly paint in acrylics and oils but I deliberately do not take them with me to Antarctica. Besides being environmentally hazardous (oils, turpentine and thinner in particular), it’s just too much gear and stuff to schlepp around. It can also be rather dangerous to make a shore leap out of a Zodiac boat with the added weight and imbalance of a pochoir box strapped to your back or, worse, in your hands. I’ve also been in a lot of hiking situations in Antarctica where the awkwardness of carrying a pochoir box could have resulted in serious injury. Make no mistake: As beautiful as it is (and I consider Antarctica the most beautiful place on earth), Antarctica is constantly a dangerous and often deadly place to be. Never let your guard down; it can mean your life.

Have a great trip! Please e-mail me jpegs of some of your pictures when you get back.

Most Sincerely,

William Stout

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Ten Things You Should Know from William Stout

I promised this list to you yesterday; sorry I’m a day late — but I think you might find it worth the wait….

This was a short observation I related at my 50th birthday party a few years ago:

When a friend of mine recently turned 60 he was given three bits of advice:
1) Never trust a fart,
2) Never pass up a chance to pee, and
3) Never waste an erection.