Painting Snow

by Armand Cabrera

Since the first snow storms are here I thought I would throw in some observations for those artists willing to get out and paint in winter weather. Painting snow presents a unique challenge compared to other subjects. The relative brightness of the landscape can hurt your eyes even when the sun is not out, the extreme temperatures can affect more than your comfort and actually harm you if you aren’t smart or careful, and conditions can have an adverse affect on your materials.

Being aware of all these things, you may question why someone would want to paint outdoors in the snow in the first place. For me it is to capture the wonder and beauty the frozen landscape has to offer. Snow is almost impossible to photograph effectively so your only real alternative is to paint it from life. Colors must be organized for maximum effect, compositions carefully thought out and value ranges keyed for each picture.

There are some things about snow you should look for when painting; some of these things are observable but others must use constructive techniques express them in an image. Practice outdoors and trial and error are your best tools for these decisions.

There is always a slight bit of subsurface scattering going on in snow, even on overcast days, this softens transitions between light and shadow and gives the snow a tinge of the hue from whatever local color is affecting it. Where the sunlight hits snow, it spreads out in almost in a prismatic effect, the shadow areas pick up the light of the sky color and reflections from sunlit areas. Because of all of these effects snow is never pure white except where you have a direct highlight from the sun. When you are in a position to actually see the highlights, you quickly realize how much relatively darker the rest of the snow is even in the lit areas.

Different types of snow affect these properties in different ways. Snow that has been melted and refrozen looks and behaves differently than freshly fallen powder. Snow patches appear more contrasted because there is no snow around them. When there is snow everywhere, that snow has a tendency to lighten everything around it with reflected and ambient light lessening the contrast and raising the key of the painting over all. These things are observable and paintable if you are willing to get out, experience it and see it first hand for yourself.

Paintings in this article are, from top to bottom Aldro T. Hibbard,
Fritz Thaulow, Birge harrison, Isaac Levitan, Edward Redfield