UART Tip #44: “Thoughts on Painting Snow” with Lyn Asselta

Being new to painting snow, having moved to Maine after 35 years in Florida, I’ve spent a good part of this past winter looking out my studio windows, walking icy paths with micro-spikes on my boots, paying close attention to the way the light hits the snow and the way air and objects are diffused in my line of sight by those falling flakes.  Whether you live in a place where there is still snow on the ground, or if you’re working from photos in your studio, there are a few things to consider when painting that lovely frozen white precipitation…or is it white at all?

Here are three of the things I’ve learned:

1. Look for warms and cools. Pay attention to where the light touches the surface of the snow and where you see shade or shadow.

Determine where you see light and where you see shade.  Think mostly in terms of warm color in the areas touched by sunlight and cool color in the shady areas, just like you would in any landscape. But the trick here is to pay attention to the color temperature of the actual light of the day.  Ask yourself, does the light look warm on this day or cool?

Some days, you’ll find a gorgeous blue sky with warm light above the snow. In this case, the colors reflecting on the surface of the snow might be warmer whites, those tinged with pinks and red-violets, oranges, or warm yellows, for example.  Under these light conditions, the shadows will often appear to be cooler: blues and blue-violets, pale greens.

On days when the light is cool and you find that the sky is more silver or grey or even yellow, the surfaces of the snow might appear as cooler blues and light-value neutrals, with few shadows.

Careful observation, along with a conscious effort to pay attention to where the light is hitting the surface of the snow will help you determine what you are actually seeing.  Be open to discovery! There are many colors to be found in snow!

2. Think of the objects covered with snow as armature, much like what it looks like when a sculptor adds clay to a form. The snow sits on top of those armatures.

3. Consider the atmosphere you’re attempting to create.

If you’re looking through the snowfall or a blizzard, is it windy or is the snow just drifting down?  Your marks should be consistent with the movement of the snow.  Are you seeing sleet? Are the surfaces of the objects in the snow wet or dry? A quiet snowfall might keep surfaces dry and therefore lighter in value in most cases.  Objects will be darker and wet if the snow is heavy and sleety.  Like you would on a foggy day, ask yourself how much of what you see is obscured by the falling snow.  What happens to the edges of objects in your line of sight? Objects close to you may be seen clearly or may not, but objects in the distance often become imperceptible shapes, and soft edges will be in order.  Does the atmosphere of the day even out the light and take away the shadows, or are there places where the light might be brighter than in other areas? Is the surface of the snow icy and hard, in which case it will reflect some of the sunlight, or is it soft, absorbing some of the light?

Like anything else, snow can be a challenge to paint, but if you think about what you’re actually seeing, and consider light and color temperature, atmosphere and edges, you’ll be well on your way to tackling this exciting and moody subject!

Lyn Asselta, IAPS-EP, PSA-MP