Like water, snow has an immediate appeal factor, conjuring up feelings of peace, awe, and fun — think Christmas, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and winter sports like skiing, sledding and skating. And with natural design elements of light and dark, snow scenes make good painting subjects. Having grown up in the Northeast, I have always been attracted to paintings with the fluffy stuff as an element of design, whether a complete blanketing of snow or patchy areas that create interesting patterns.
When painting snow the beginner will usually go directly for the white paint, which, artistically speaking, is a recipe for disaster. Even on the brightest sunny day, the value of snow should be subdued so that highlights have a chance to register. Painting the main body of snow darker than the value of white by a couple of steps will usually solve this and give the overall sensation of what you are after. As an experiment, go out into a field of snow on a bright sunny day and look at how blinding the glare can be; but even with all of this glaring light, there is still room in nature for a highlight on this blinding mass. To prove this, make a snowball, throw it a few feet in front of you and notice the highlight as well as the darker shadow created by the indentation. Once you see this and finally understand it as a visual reality you can begin to express yourself artistically. Looking around at all the undulations created by the rolling ground, along with highlights and shadows formed by animal tracks, human footprints and snowplows, you will realize the possibilities you have in paint.
Along with value, the artist can bring to the painting expressive nuances with color. Going back to the beginner using white paint, one only needs to look around and make an earnest study of the subject in order to see the variations of color in a snow scene. The color can vary slightly depending on several factors, such as how dense or crystallized the snow is on a particular day due to the ambient temperature of the air and how clear the atmosphere is. The typical color of the sunlit snow on a sunny day with a blue sky is a warm gray with hints of cool temperatures. This gray can take on tinges of red, orange, yellow, green, violet or even blue, but these colors will be very subdued. The reason for this grayness is that the warmth of the sunlight is partly cancelled out by the dome of blue sky, which creates a relatively warm gray on the main body of the snow. This is due to the effect created by the stronger power of the sunlight in relation to the weaker power of the skylight. Since the main body of snow is not at an angle to the sunlight sufficient to create a highlight to the viewer’s eye, it will remain darker than other highlights in the same vicinity. This understanding will cause the artist to realize the futility of white paint as a solution in depicting snow. Subtle color variations are not only present in the sunlit part of the snow, but even more pronounced in the shadows. In these shadows the reflective quality of the snow will be more apparent and the artist will notice the reflected light from the surrounding landscape as well as the influence of the sky.
Due to the overuse of photography, many painters of snow scenes have been guilty of using too much blue in the shadows as well as too much pure white in the sunlit areas. When I look back at some of my early efforts in this area, I have to admit my own errors. But errors are what we humans learn from, and the best advice I can give is to go out in nature and study! Painting from life and numerous exercises in pure observation are the best cure for any of our faulty assumptions. Along with value and color variations, the expressive tool of edge control will give you that added dimension to paint snow or any number of things. To round this off, don’t forget drawing and brushwork (but more on those another time).
Below I have included several photos to illustrate my procedure for “A Winter Scene.” Notice how the original concept is an abstract idea that mimics the overall design of the finished painting. The ability to see each subject as a mental abstraction is an important skill for any painter. If the painting holds together as an abstract design it will work as a representational expression as long as the original concept is not lost in the finishing process. Good luck on your next excursion into the field.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.