How to paint snow en plein air > Eight top artists help break down the important elements to capturing snow-covered landscapes in pastel and oil.
By Michael Chesley Johnson
(author of the upcoming book “Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air,” available for pre-order now)
Take a moment and think back to outings when you had perfect painting weather. What was it like? Sunny and warm, with just the slightest breeze to cool your skin? Well, snow painting can be like that, too, if you’re in the right place — like the Alps on a bright spring day. More often than not, however, you’re going to find painting in the snow to be a series of challenges, with the worst being numbing cold; stinging, windblown precipitation; and lead-gray light. Even so, it can be an infinitely rewarding experience.
I like to paint snow because it greatly simplifies the landscape to a high-contrast assemblage of abstract shapes. What’s more, snow catches color like nothing else. On a sunny day, you can find a whole rainbow of color in a snowfield. Plus, snow adds another layer of textural richness to the landscape. Finally, there’s nothing like crisp, chill air coursing through your lungs to raise your energy level.
Staying Safe and Warm
“Be prepared” is good advice when plein air painting no matter what the season, but special attention must be paid when painting in winter. Most crucial are considerations for your comfort and safety. Under certain conditions, frostbite can present a real danger. Make sure to dress in layers for warmth, and remember that standing to paint — or worse, sitting — will feel colder than taking a brisk walk. Also, on a sunny day, snow is extremely reflective. Even if the sun is at a low angle because of the season, you can still get a sunburn, so wear protection. In addition to your skin, it’s important to protect your eyes. Although I don’t wear sunglasses when applying color, I do wear them when hiking to a location and setting up.
Marc Dalessio: “I wear a Crux alpinist’s belay jacket. It is stitched differently from normal city coats, so I don’t feel the sleeve when I hold my arm up to paint and avoid getting a sore shoulder. I also have a custom-made (by Goosefeet Gear), light-weight down Hibbard mitten, which is a thumbless glove with a hole at the tip for inserting a paintbrush, with a removable waterproof shell. From Harkila, I use winter hunting pac boots.”
Chuck Marshall: “Sweating can be a huge issue when it comes to cold weather. I don’t use my heater while driving to a painting location. This makes it easier to get used to the cold, and not such a shock to the body, plus I don’t end up sweating.”
D.F. Gray: “For painting in pastel, I wear knit gloves with the thumb and forefinger tips cut off.”
It’s important to have the right equipment, too. I carry the same basic gear year-round, but I may add to it in wintertime. Chemical handwarmers are key on very cold days, and I tuck them into my mittens and boots.
If painting in fresh snow, I sometimes set my easel up on a sheet of cardboard to keep the legs from punching through the crust. In this situation, a snowbank makes an excellent brush holder; I just stab the brushes in, handle side down.
Dalessio: “As I’m often out in falling snow and freezing rain, I need more protection from the elements for my gear and use a waterproof backpack.”
Gray: “To my regular setup, I add a small carpet to stand on to keep my feet off the snow.”
T.J. Cunningham: “I have learned to use an umbrella to keep falling snow off my palette. An umbrella can also help keep blowing snow out of my face.”
Carol Strock Wasson: “If I’m painting near a road, I set up two collapsible hazard cones for visibility.”
Adapting to the Conditions
You also may need to adapt your materials or process. Some of the old-time painters added kerosene to their oil paint in extreme cold to keep it workable. I wouldn’t recommend lugging around a can of kerosene on your expeditions, but you might consider a modern medium to decrease viscosity. Watercolor painters may add a little alcohol to the water to lower its freezing point. Pastels are most difficult because they are best used with bare fingers — a numbing experience in winter.
Marshall: “Because my oil paint thickens up, especially in the colder weather, I might use mineral spirits to help when mixing to thin the paint enough to make it pliable.”
T.M. Nicholas: “I use less quick-drying white with my titanium white, about one-third to two-thirds, and switch from stand oil to linseed oil for more fluidity.”
Cunningham: “It can be tricky to squeeze paint out of tubes while wearing thick gloves. Loading paint onto my palette before I head out saves time and frustration.”
Barbara Jaenicke: “It can be tricky to squeeze paint out of tubes while wearing thick gloves. Loading paint onto my palette before I head out saves time and frustration.”
Wasson: “When painting in oil on cold days, I keep my white paint in a pocket close to my body, which keeps the paint warm and easy to squeeze out.”
Lynn Boggess: “Painting with knives is so much easier in winter because the paint is more solid and allows for more control, as opposed to warmer days when it may become too fluid. Also, I keep things simple. My palette is two reds, two blues, two yellows, and a white — straight from the tube, no extenders. I generally use a six-inch modified cement trowel to begin, and a small painting knife to finish.”
Jaenicke: “I do small field studies so I don’t have to stay out for long, especially when it’s cold. If I’m taking photos but not able to paint, the next best thing is to paint a quick study from memory when I get back to my studio.”
Nicholas: “I work three to five hours outside, then when I’m back at the studio, I decide what the picture needs. I never finish anything outdoors, as I feel I can improve things and focus more on the painting without the subject in front of me.”
Boggess: “I work as rapidly as possible to record the sensations of a place and time. Depending on the size of my canvas, this can take as little as a couple of hours, or as much as four days. The other step in the process is to take the painting back to the studio and make sense of these sensations. Everything slows down in the studio. As the painting nears completion, every mark is carefully considered. A successful painting will have benefited from the two phases — rapid and careful applications — in equilibrium.”
How to Paint Snow: Responding to Color and Value
Color is what gets me most excited about painting snow. On a clear day, shadows on snow can range from violet to blue to green. Sunlit areas can range from lemon yellow to orange. You might even find light tints of blue and violet scattered throughout, due to the snow crystals catching the sunlight. On a cloudy day, shadows will be a little warmer as the clouds reflect diffuse light into them. On an overcast day, the variety of grays in snow help fine-tune my color vision.
I save pure white paint for the smallest highlights. White is a cool color, so adding a touch of it on top of a light, warm passage will make the area seem even warmer, thanks to simultaneous contrast. And if I want to make my whites “whiter than white,” I add a touch of lemon yellow to pure white to warm it up.
Snow has edges, and edges are a product of value changes. There may be sharp edges where a light area abuts a dark one, soft edges where a light area slides into dark, but rarely lost edges where the shadowed portions of snow merge with the shadows of another object. Sometimes snow in shadow will seem quite light, but it should never be painted so that it is lighter than the darkest surface in light. It’s important to maintain the value separation between sunlight and shade, especially when painting snow.
Marshall: “Like all forms of water, snow refracts light differently than other objects. Snow definitely isn’t white, and, in fact, its colors are dictated by the light hitting it and the objects around it.”
Dalessio: “The top of snow is usually darker and bluer than the sides, or any footprints or crevices that can be seen. The sun is quite low in the winter, and the planes that get the most light will be those facing sideways.”
Nicholas: “It’s a good idea to make the snow a little darker than you see it, as this allows for more color in the snow. Never paint the snow pure white. If you have to get that light, it means all your other values are off. Cover your canvas as quickly as possible, as the white canvas can be a problem for your values.”
Gray: “I try not to use white and creep up slowly with the lights.”
Cunningham: “My lightest lights are one thing that I pay special attention to when I’m painting snow. By establishing my lightest light early, I leave room to explore the darker passages in the snow.”
Jaenicke: “I tend to emphasize the temperature shifts in the sunlit and shadow portions of snow. For sunlit areas, I push the warm temperatures. With light and shadow contrasts, I usually allow the temperature shifts to drive that contrast more so than values.”
Wasson: “There are three conditions that I watch for: early morning with its cool gray, blue-violet shadows; early evening, which has a warmer cast to the sky; and my favorite, a mist that keeps everything very close in value. I limit my winter palette to muted grays, yellows, blues, and violets, whether oil or pastel.”
Boggess: “The white of snow creates a contrast that defines a terrain like nothing else.”
A final note on adding surface texture: Although snow may appear creamy, playing with texture can really liven it up. I make background passages smooth, but as the snow gets closer to the foreground, I look for places where I can use thick paint to punch up the texture. A painting knife provides an excellent way to model snow so it appears three-dimensional. Another way to add texture is to find places where grasses or sticks poke up through the surface.
Anybody can enjoy snow painting. Just make sure you bundle up, think about your materials and — have fun! ~Michael Chesley Johnson
What are your go-to tips on how to paint snow? Share them with us in the comments below!
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