When artists and twin brothers Trevor and Ryan Oakes set out to paint a Red River Valley winter landscape, they planned to work by the light of the moon.
Their first night, with the temperature hovering below zero, ice crystals grew over the oil paint they spread on their palette.
"It looked like it was covered like a glazed donut," Trevor Oakes said. It was so cold, their tape wouldn't stick to the easel. "We realized it was going to be impossible to paint at night and had to revise our approach and paint during the day."
The twin artists, based in New York, are creating a painting for the permanent collection at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.
They arrived in the area in mid-March, just in time for Blizzard Fiona. After a week of scouting locations and making other preparations, they set up the concave easel they invented on the viewing platform at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Grand Forks.
Painting during the day brought frostbite, windburn, sunburn and eyes watering from the reflection of the sun on the snow.
However, the brothers persevered -- "They are such troupers," said the museum's Matt Wallace -- and finished their work, which they will unveil to the public at 6 this evening at the Kellys Slough viewing platform.
Against the wind
After spending a couple of days in and around Grand Forks, the Oakes twins realized wind would also be an issue in their painting project. They built a cardboard box around the easel that protected them from the wind.
The box, of course, acted like a wind sail which would tip the easel. Sometimes they tied the easel down to keep it from blowing over, and had to cover the front of the easel with clear plastic and even a small Plexiglass shield to protect themselves from the wind.
Trevor Oakes said he and his brother protected themselves with layers of goose down and merino wool. But Sunday, with its 25 mph winds and gusts up to 45 mph was a particular challenge, he said.
"If we hadn't been on deadline to finish the work so quickly, we probably would have taken the day off," he said. "This is definitely the most extreme conditions we've ever done a drawing in."
The winter landscape isn't a drawing, but an oil painting -- the first time the Oakes Twins have used oil-based paint in one of the works they made on the concave easel. The cold made the oil paint thicker and stiffer, but it didn't freeze the paint.
The Red River Valley winter landscape painting by the Oakes twins is 21 inches wide and 20 inches tall with a clear crystal blue sky that changes to white at the horizon, with tips of vegetations showing through the snow, Trevor Oakes said.
Their concave easel is meant to replicate the way the human eyes perceive the world -- as a sphere around us rather than a flat surface like traditional paintings.
The unique technique has drawn national and international attention, gaining the Oakes twins commissions from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Chicago's Field Museum, among others.
"We wanted to come to North Dakota and do a really flat vista that would have the minimum of form, a somewhat reduced environment," Ryan Oakes said. "But even with the flat snow plane, there's still a large amount of scale and texture that changes when you translate this flat plane and sky onto a vertical surface."
The twins said Tuesday that they plan to stay in North Dakota for an extra week to finish another landscape painting for themselves.
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