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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part II.)

When you practice painting trees, begin by studying the bare outlines of winter trees (deciduous), because you can better see their whole structure and their proportions.  In general, the proportions of a tree can be divided into thirds: one third trunk, one third branches, one third twigs.  This principle may not always apply, but it gives you a helpful place to start.  Observe whether the tree exhibits a single vertical trunk or multiple trunks; a twisted and contorted trunk, possibly weeping branches, or angular or smooth-flowing branches.  Very few trees are symmetrical.

Use a round brush to paint the main trunk and thicker branches, then a rigger to paint thinner branches or twigs.  (A palette knife or liner can also be useful for painting small twigs.)  Alternatively and more simply, you can scumble in the smallest branches of a winter tree with a light tone to suggest the smallest growth.  For a winter tree, work from the bottom upwards.  Establish the trunk and main branches boldly; then begin to “suggest” a few smaller branches before rendering a light tone (by scumbling or dry brushing) for the fuzzy tiny twigs.

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The complicated outlines of trees in leaf can be overwhelming without simplification.  It is important to remember that the same basic structure as is there in winter still lies beneath the cloak of foliage.  You should paint the foliage as several large masses, varying them in size and making the shapes interesting, while also leaving rough edges; nevertheless, each should have three dimensions.  Some masses should overlap others, but leave gaps between some to form important sky holes.  Paint branches and twigs in these sky holes, NOT on top of the foliage shapes.  You should not paint individual leaves.  Definitely do not paint detail you cannot see from a distance.

In general, when painting foliage, prepare a wash for the lighter areas and another, stronger wash for the darker spots.  (You have the option of using even more color layers to increase color and tone variations.)  If you apply the first light wash in a series of quick strokes with the side of your brush, the resulting shape will tend to look more spontaneous than overworked.  Then, before the first layer of color dries, drop in some of the darker wash to correspond to the darker, shaded areas you have observed.  You must remember to leave random sky holes.  For trees in leaf, begin your painting with the foliage; then add trunks and branches.  Tops of trees  (facing the light) will usually be the lightest areas.

 

To be continued…

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

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Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

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This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…

Find Free-To-Use Reference Photographs for Painting…

Before using the following list of online image resources, consider all the dangers and pitfalls of painting from other people’s (or any online) photographs.  (See my February 26, 2019 blog titled “Properly Using a Photograph as a Painting Reference” to learn about the pros and cons of reference photos.)

Use caution if an image is not your original work.  You should assume that any image you find online is protected by copyright unless you see evidence that the creator has given permission to use the image in a certain way.  Under federal law, a photographer has the sole right to copy and distribute the photos she or he takes.  You cannot use or publish a work without the creator’s consent.  Usage rights tell you whether the image creator has allowed use of that image and under what conditions.

Types of usage rights include:

FAIR USE allows you to use a copyrighted image without permission, either for your personal and educational purposes or for the public good.  You can, however, transform the image into something new!   If you turn a copyrighted image into a COMPLETELY new work, you can use that image freely.

CREATIVE COMMONS NON-PROFIT provides free copyright licenses for creators.  The copyright holder can determine several things with these licenses:

  • whether you need to credit the holder for the image (for example, photos from “pmp.art.com”)
  • whether you can use that image for commercial purposes
  • whether you can modify that image
  • what license you must use if you modify that image.

(Google and Flickr allow you to filter search results by searching for images with a specific creative commons license.)

PUBLIC DOMAIN means that the creator has given up the copyright willingly or that the copyright has expired.  Copyrights expire seventy years after the death of the creator.  Thus, you are free to use PUBLIC DOMAIN images any way you’d like.  (Wikipedia Commons has a large database of images in the public domain.)

Some websites allow you to use “stock” photos.  Some stock photos are available for purchase; others may be free.  When you buy a stock photo, you are buying the right to use a copyrighted image.  Rights can vary, so read a license agreement closely.  (shutterstock.com, stock.adobe.com, and istockphoto.com are examples of stock photo sites.)

Here is a selected list of websites (that I have used in the past) offering free-to-use photos.  Search what you are looking for, and you will find thousands of possible photos that you can use.  (The more specific your search terms, the more success you will have in finding what you are looking for.)

SITES:

 pixabay.com          commons.wikimedia.org                                                 unsplash.com        publicdomainpictures.net                                                 morguefile.com      publicdomainarchive.com                                                 pexels.com              isorepublic.com                                                                 picjumbo.com         picography.co                                                                       reshot.com             mmtstock.com                                                                 rawpixel.com        skitterphoto.com                                                           pikwizard.com             lifeofpix.com                                                       gratisography.com      foodiesfeed.com                                                     albumarium.com        burst.shopify.com                                                     freeimages.com       epicantus.tumblr.com                                                       stocksnap.io              maxpixel.net                                                                   freestocks.org             1millionfreepictures.com                                         shotstash.com             jeshoots.com                                                     freefoodphotos.com     jaymantri.com                                                       barnimages.com

These are just some free sites.  Things change all the time online, though, so expect new sites to appear and others to change.

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

Christmas tree truck photo refence.jpg  image1.jpg

Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs do not reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a tool like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

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Pepperell Relic.jpg

Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

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Watercolor “Maine coastline”, photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.

Let It Snow!!!

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?

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)

Winter is Coming.jpg

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)

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Robert O’Brien uses both warm and cool colors when painting snow.  He will wash in a very pale cadmium yellow light where sunlight 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)

Snowy River.jpg

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.

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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)

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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 thin snowscapes to contrast with the rich winter darks he finds in trees and hedgerows.  He also uses the hard and soft shapes in a landscape to create contrast in his many snowy landscape watercolors.  (www.geoffkersey.co.uk)

Snowy Croft.jpg

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Campbell Smith, Ray.  Developing Style in Watercolour (1992).

Kersey, Geoff.  “A Wintry Mood.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2018).

Kersey, Geoff.  Geoff’s Top Tips for Watercolour Artists (2010).

Kersey, Geoff.  Painting Successful Watercolours from Photographs (2015).

Hendershot, Ray.  Texture Techniques for Winnign Watercolors (1999).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting! (2017).

MacKenzie, Gordon.  The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Landscapes (2006).

Metzger, Phil.  Watercolor Basics: Perspective Secrets (1999).

O’Brien, Robert J.  “Winter Whiteout.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2015).

Pike, John.  John Pike Paints Watercolors (1978).

Pike, John.  John Pike Watercolor (1973).

Ranson, Ron.  Watercolor Painting from Photographs (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Let’s Get Started (1998).

Reid, Jack.  Watercolor Basics: Painting Snow and Water (2000).

Reid, Jack.  “The Snow Scene.”  Watercolor Magic (Winter 2002).

Ryder, Brian.  Painting Watercolor Landscapes with Confidence (2005).

Strickley, Sarah A.  “A Revolution of Snow.”  Watercolor Artist (February 2010) .

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo, Artist at Work (1979).

Szabo, Zoltan.  Zoltan Szabo’s 70 Favorite Watercolor Techniques (1995).

Watson, Debi.  “It’s Snow Time.”  Watercolor Artist (December 2010).