I was the recipient of the National Science Foundation's 1992/1993
Antarctic Artists & Writers Program grant. I spent 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
The NSF trips were not my first to Antartica. 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 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
pallette, 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 pallette 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 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 my
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.
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 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. 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.