Painting snow can be tricky. Most people think snow is white, but if you look closely, snow is full of color. Many factors can affect how snow appears, including time of day, temperature, atmosphere, the quality of light, and perspective. Is the day sunny and bright or overcast? Is the snow freshly fallen and fluffy or heavy, wet, and dirty? Do snow shadows appear blue, gray, or purple?
In a landscape painting, much of the color of snow is found either in shadows or as a reflection. You can look for the colors reflected by the sky and nearby areas to determine colors to use in your painting. Sunlit snow may benefit from a very pale warm-colored wash to suggest that sun is shining on the snow. In the shadows, a cool (bluer) color combination will suggest shade. Using both warm and cool tones will increase sparkle. In contrast, an overcast day tends to create grayer snow shadows. Edges may be hard on one side and soft or lost-and-found on another.
Check out the following hints for painting snow from several experienced artists:
John Pike has painted many amazing watercolors of snow scenes during his lifetime. He says that the “tendency in painting snow scenes is to make the shadows too blue.” Pike creates snow that glows subtly with color by pre-wetting the entire white snow area. While that area is still wet, he drops in small spots of the three primaries (red, yellow, and blue), then softly blends the whole together “to gain a subtle spectral quality” and ”to kill the deadness of pure white paper.” He creates soft upper edges of snow shadows by “applying clear water in just that area” and painting shadow color “upward to the water.”
Frank LaLumia believes that snow is “like a laboratory for studying light.” He says, “In my opinion, using only white paper to depict snow is inadequate. Light is color.” (www.lalumia.com)
Gordon MacKenzie has said that painting a winter scene offers many opportunities to play with color temperature and purity. The snow is “a mirror for the subtle atmospheres that surround it, from the pure warm and cool colors of a bright sunny day to the dulled subtlety of a snowstorm.” He describes two techniques to create the snow shadows that define the contours of the land they fall across. The first method is a quickly laid-down wash wet-on-damp for the first layer and then wet-on-dry for the final layer. MacKenzie suggests mixing a large enough batch of paint that you will have enough of the same color for both layers. The second method of painting snow shadows involves painting the entire snow area with a non-staining blue-gray (cobalt blue or ultramarine blue plus burnt sienna). Once the surface is dry, you can remove bright sun spots by scrubbing them off with lots of water and blotting away the paint. (www.gordonmackenziewatercolours.com)
Robert O’Brien uses both warm and cool colors when painting snow. He will wash in a very pale cadmium yellow light where sunlit highlights fall, but for other sunlit areas, he tones down the white of the paper with a very light wash of brilliant orange mixed with quinacridone rose. For a cooler, more-shaded area, O’Brien uses a light wash of French ultramarine. He notes that the color of snow shadows will vary based on sky conditions. On a clear, sunny day, O’Brien likes to use French ultramarine mixed with a small amount of cobalt for snow shadows, sometimes mixed with brilliant orange to tone down the color a bit. An overcast sky tends to bring about grayer snow and shadows. Mixing quinacridone violet and new gamboge with blue creates his desired gray. O’Brien’s snow shadows can have soft or hard edges, or both. To paint softer shadows, he may rewet an area of snow, let the water soak in, and paint a shadow when the paper is damp but not shiny. For harder snow shadows, he may wait longer or let the paper dry completely before he tackles a snow shadow. He also softens hard edges in appropriate place. (www.robertobrien.com)
Cecy Turner imagines “key words” that will describe her snow scenes and then tries to use painting techniques to illustrate those ideas. She likes to use glazing – layers of transparent colors (letting each layer dry before adding another layer) – to “create more interesting colors and nuances.” The blues that Turner prefers are French ultramarine, cobalt, Antwerp, and cerulean. She uses a No. 8 Cheap Joe’s Fritch scrubber to soften edges on snow shadows, particularly as the shadows progress farther away from the objects casting the shadows. (www.cecyturner.com)
Jack Reid uses transparent watercolors to make snow translucent and capture its subtle variations. He likes to mix a soft gray with cobalt and burnt sienna. If he wants a pure, luminous, warm gray, he adds more burnt sienna. He varies this color by adding more cobalt for a cooler gray. Reid’s palette is permanent alizarin crimson, aureolin yellow, cobalt blue, viridian green, raw sienna, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and the staining Antwerp blue and quinacridone yellow. He prefers to use Winsor-Newton paints except for Holbein viridian. For painting the illusion of falling snow and the suggestion of trees disappearing in drifting snow, Reid lifts color from the bases of trees with a tissue while the paint is still wet. He also uses a lot of graded washes on damp paper to create roundness on a mound of snow. Color lightens and softens (in the graded wash) as it progresses from deep snow shadow up into the light.
Debi Watson spatters masking fluid to create the effect of falling snow. She paints her light values wet on wet, explaining that “most great snow paintings have hints of color in their whites.” These initial washes are painted with soft, transparent red, yellow, and blue. Watson moves on to dark areas, then to medium values once the lights and darks have been established. She states that snow shadows can be kept soft by working on damp paper. (www.debiwatson.com)
Cathy Johnson paints snow full of color. If it’s tightly packed in a drift, she says it “may look almost blue; if it’s fluffy and freshly fallen, it can appear blue-gray or lavender. Old snow on city streets is gray with soot; while in the country, snowy roads may become streaked with brown. You can achieve either of these street effects by painting wet-into-wet with gray or brown, as appropriate, then adding spatter to suggest splashes. When the sun is shining on snow, you may see the glitter of light on a billion tiny reflective surfaces. To recreate this look, try combining all three primaries – red, yellow, and blue – in your underwash. Wet the paper first with clean water, then drop in pure colors such as cadmium yellow pale, [permanent] alizarin crimson and phthalo blue. Let the colors mix a bit on the paper – I stir them with the tip of my brush, or by tilting the paper. These colors shouldn’t be too saturated or they’ll look garish – the goal is to create a light-filled look. While the initial layer is still wet, add some shadow colors.” Johnson reserves warmer blues (for example, ultramarine, cobalt, and so on) to suggest the shadow shapes on snow. “Once the first washes have dried, glaze over them with your blue or lavender snow color” to shape and form the snow. “To further enhance the prismatic effect of snow, you can also spatter on a bit of each of the three primary colors . . . make sure that your primary spatters aren’t too juicy. This ensures that the paint spatters remain tiny,” whether into a wet wash or onto dry paper. (www.cathyjohnson.info)
In his article “A Wintry Mood” (Watercolor Artist, February 2018, p. 82), Geoff Kersey has pointed out that “Just because it’s a snow scene doesn’t mean it has to feel bleak and make the viewer shiver.” When painting snow, Kersey tries to include bright light and warm color. He has developed several palettes in various color schemes to alter the feel of an image and suggest different moods. His COLD PALETTE creates wintry grays and darks. He mixes a cool gray with phthalo blue and just a touch of burnt umber, a dark brown with ultramarine blue and burnt umber, and a dark green from phthalo blue and burnt umber. The LIMITED PALETTE includes cobalt blue, neutral tint, burnt sienna, and raw sienna to produce a simple, harmonious feeling. A WARM PALETTE employs the warm glow of raw sienna and cadmium red, grays mixed from cobalt blue and vermillion, and dark greens made with ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and viridian. Kersey echoes the sky colors throughout his snowscapes to oppose the rich winter darks he finds in trees and hedgerows (and to ensure color harmony). He also uses the hard and soft shapes in a landscape to create contrast in his many snowy landscape watercolors. (www.geoffkersey.co.uk)
Don’t be afraid to use color in a winter snow scene, both warm colors and cool colors. The light and sky conditions will determine the colors with which you choose to paint. In snowy conditions skies often require deeper tones than usual in order to make the snow appear lighter by contrast. On clear, sunny days, snow shadows are bluer to echo the blue sky. Grayer snow and snow shadows reflect an overcast sky. As you evaluate your snow scene, look for opportunities to add color and exaggerate color if doing so will improve your painting. Use snow shadows on the ground to describe the shape of the land under the snow. Rough ground may need shadow shapes that are bumpy and uneven. Rocks, twigs, and tufts of grass may stick up through the snow. Reflected light can be everywhere, sometimes creating glitter and sparkles. Often snow shadows repeat the sky color, just as a reflection in a body of water can reflect sky colors and the surrounding landscape.
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Very interesting read, Lee. Great information and you get wonderful results.
Thanks, Karen, for all your compliments! They are appreciated. Lee.
Thanks Lee, Iam struggling with snow scenes these days, and will explore some of these suggestions.
One thing to remember is that snow colors often need to be quite pale, barely visible. Snow shadows, however, can be stronger in value, particularly in shade. Another thing I found is that snow shadows can have hard edges in places, but soft edges or lost-and-found edges as the color comes out of a crevice into the light. Challenging! Yet, oh so beautiful!
Thanks for your comment.
Lee, I was really intrigued by Robert O’Brien’s palette and started to swatch it (except for quinacridone yellow, which I don’t have. His website address is actually http://robertjobrien.com, not http://www.robertobrien.com
Thank you for the correction!
Ha! My mistake, I meant the Jack Reid palette is what I swatched.
Thank you for the mention! Lee