The Infinitely Deep Colors of Winter

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blue ice

In winter, you can contemplate infinite variations of a single hue: All the shades inherent in white, gray, blue, how each edges into the next. The light enters the sky at a wholly different angle, producing unusual shadows, always racing towards dusk. I swear winter changes the timbre of sounds: on a frigid cold day, they ring more clearly, perhaps because the surrounding reverberant space is emptied of people. “The color of springtime is in the flowers,” writes Ward Elliott Hour, “the color of winter is in the imagination.”

I live in Chicago—yes, that metropolis on Lake Michigan rendered into “Chiberia” by the Polar Vortex. The Second City’s denizens are no winter slouchers, but 20 degrees below zero pings on an entirely new register of cold for us. Snug in my home office, every window icing over in extraordinary lace, I couldn’t get enough of photo blogs like the Mother Nature Network chronicling how extreme cold changed the workaday landscape in otherworldly fashion. This fellow is strolling on the sandy beaches edging Lake Michigan; the steam in the background are tendrils of warmth rapidly escaping the lake.

Winter makes you contemplate the actions of water constantly: its mercurial thermodynamics, how the upper reaches of the sky interact with ground-level to create micro-climates, yielding variously sleet, freezing rain or snow.

Sinclair Lewis put it best: “Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.” It’s shoveling, salting, suiting up and down, navigating new footing, feeding the home humidifer and washing your silk underwear out by hand.

37 Beautiful Fireplaces

Winter is incredibly tactile. The weather only disappears as an enemy if you’re properly bundled up, itself an art many love to practice knowingly. You police any crevices around your neck, wrists or ankles, because that’s where the cold bites if you miss a gap. Minnesotans I know don a beat-around pair of sweatpants strictly as outerwear; they’ll shed these at the doorstep with their leaking boots and emerge, dapperly suited, like quick-change artist. A down coat makes a shushing sound as you walk in it. You move your head and feel the furry hood brush your cheek, the strings on your hat moving like surprising hair over your shoulders.

Winter clothes bring own distinctive palettes, textures and shapes, designed not just for functionality but to echo the patterns unique to the season: snowflakes, frosted mountaintops, snowy owls, bare trees etching overcast skies like a fine-inked black pen.

Children’s Trend: Nordic Ice

Winter weddings always charm me. A ritual revolving around a white dress (although not always) brings out the warmth inherent in the act of marriage: You’re locking circles with the one you love best, in an otherwise harsh landscape. Pine-needles, bright holly, white birch strips—the plants of winter are sharp, distinctive, intriguing more for their geometry and pattern than color.

You can see winter as barren, aggravation-packed, and fundamentally adversarial—or you can embrace its crystalline, sometimes prickly but always gorgeous self. Here’s hoping you can train a fascinating visual lens on the season this year.

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magazine cover design by Debbie Millman

Cover design by Debbie Millman. Photography by Brent Taylor.