UART Tip #19: Prepping for Snow with Barbara Jaenicke

For any painting, the block-in is crucial. In this all important step, my goal is to begin with only a few shapes, and to connect shapes wherever possible to create movement into and throughout the painting. With a snow scene especially, I’m also concerned with setting up a warm base that will give additional “glow” to sunlit areas of the snow, and a warm/cool contrast to the shadow areas of the snow.  This warm-against-cool contrast is important for capturing the look and feel of snow.

For a pastel block-in, here is one of my favorite ways to get things going: I like to begin with 3-4 hard pastels, using a dark cool hue (usually a dark blue) for the dark values and a vibrant pink or orange for my light values. The pinks and oranges I use are sometimes a step or two darker than the eventual value for that area so that I have a strong warm temperature beneath those reflective areas. Using too light or pale of a color in the underpainting in those areas doesn’t give me enough temperature contrast for the subsequent layers of the painting.

Alcohol wash over initial block-ins for Three O’clock Shadow Dance and Distant Light

Using a bristle brush (usually a #8 or #12 depending on the size painting), I apply alcohol over each shape, setting up my edges so that one shape drips into another shape, keeping most of my edges very loose and vague. This allows me to pick and choose where I ultimately want hard and soft edges. I also focus on abstract shapes and generalized value structure at this stage, rather than painting actual subject matter.

Keeping a snow scene “unmuddied” can be challenging, but it’s important. That’s why I like setting up my foundation in a wet underpainting that will dry to a non-dusty layer. This way, I can cleanly apply contrasting color temperatures on top of the underpainted foundation.

Maintaining a genuine look and feel of wet, icy snow in a painting is dependent upon capturing that visual vibration of warms against cools so that it appears to reflect light. As I layer contrasting temperatures, I’m careful to use a light application of the pastel so that the contrasting temperature will peek through.

An important item to note here is that reference photos of the snowy landscape will rarely capture accurate color temperature. In photos, the sunlit areas tend to appear flat white and much cooler than they appeared on location, and shadow areas typically go much darker than they really are. The best way to learn to see color temperature in the snow is to put on some snow boots and get out there to study it closely in person, or better yet, paint a quick study on location. Be sure to bundle up!

Barbara Jaenicke, PSA, IAPS/EP, AIS, OPA

Visit Barbara’s website at to view more of her work and her workshop schedule, and check out her blog at for additional painting tips for both oil and pastel. You might also want to visit for Barbara’s instructional video series.