UART Tip #57: “Find Your Winter Palette, Snow or Shine” with Jeanne Rosier Smith

As temperatures drop, icy blues, muted browns, and soft greys replace the richer tones of warm weather landscapes. Does the thought of painting winter…leave you cold?  If we only notice and paint the colors we think we see in the winter landscape, our paintings risk looking dull and lifeless. All that cold can be visually numbing.

So, how do we make the cold feel alive, and also visually exciting? We turn on the heat. Just as we feel the cold more after being toasty warm, cooler colors look cooler against a hit of warm light or vibrating over a warm underpainting. Looking for warmth and using it strategically in your winter scenes can make them more inviting and effective.

Here are a few tips for injecting warmth and vibrancy into your winter scenes, whether you are painting sunny days or snowstorms.

1. Observe the true colors

On a sunny day, even in winter, the sun’s natural warmth immediately creates a warm/cool push and pull in any snowy landscape. The shadows will reflect the cool blue sky, and the snow in sunlight will reflect the warm light of the sun. Depending on the plane of the snow, you might see peach, yellow, pink, turquoise…there is a lot of light bouncing around so be alert and really look. Don’t trust your photos, which will flatten and blue out all your colors. Observe and remember, and even take color notes from your car, or from your own window, if possible (if you’re like me, and easily get numb fingers outside!).

2. Underpaint to capture warmth

For this 8”x8” snowy pine scene, a warm underpainting behind the trees created a useful backdrop to build on.  I used a yellow-orange hard pastel for the areas of light behind the trees, and varying shades of dark reddish violet and rust for under the green pines, washing the dry pastel down with 70% alcohol and a brush on UART 320 grit paper. I then allowed natural drips to form in my underpainting, because I liked the vertical variations they created and thought they might add interesting texture and richness in my forest background.

3. Layer strategically and allow underpainting to shine

Because an underpainting is always strategic in the hopes of setting up the rest of the painting in the best way possible, I chose to underpaint the snowy foreground with the shadow-blue local color of the snow, with strokes heading diagonally down the slope of the hill. I left a soft edge where the snow shadows meet the forest line. I prefer to leave my underpainting edges soft, as I find it much easier to pull out and define sharp edges at a later stage than to try to soften and push back hard edges and puzzle piece shapes as I am layering on later layers.

I think of forest scenes as screens and I layered this one next with trunks and the dark masses of greens, then with the warmer, lighter greens where light was hitting them, and finally, with the snow both in shadow (blues) and sunlight (yellow-white).

The snow on the hill is partially underpainting and layered with whites in three shades:  a blue tint, and warm tints in a peach and yellow.  Note that it’s the contrast between the peach from behind along with the bright warm lights of the creamy white snow that tell us what a sunny day it is.

As you can see in the finished piece, the variations in light values and the warmth of this initial underpainting create a sense of light and space when left showing here and there through the final painting.

Here (Backyard Beauty) is another example of a warm underpainting on a sunny day creating an exciting winter palette. Notice the bits of deep pink and yellow orange showing through the foreground snow, another way to create vibration and light with your underpainting.

4. When color fades, push your neutrals into complements—and play with it

When the day is overcast or snowy, it may seem trickier to achieve this sense of warmth or contrast in color palette.  But even when there is little to no actual ‘color’ in a scene and the world appears black and white, we can achieve the same push-pull of temperature contrasts, with a play of neutral complements.  There are no hard and fast rules here; the color wheel can get you going, but it’s more important to get a warm (or two) and a cool (or two).  These are also usually complements, because warms and cools are found across the color wheel from each other.

Here are a few examples.

Snowy Pines uses a red/green color scheme. Neutral reds in the background trees to push against the green grey pines in the foreground.  Snow and sky whites are tinted pink and yellow, creating subtle warmth.

In Winter Lace, icy lavender contrasts with warm ochre.

The sky, snow and background trees in this snowy scene are all tinted pink and contrast with an ochre green and pine.

Here, blues and purples in the trees contrast with a warm peachy lemon light, a classic complementary duo.

While sunny days might feel more exciting to the palette, the possibilities with snowy, ‘colorless’ winter scenes are so endless that your imagination is your only limit. Try painting the same winter scene with different color dyads: Rose/green, Ochre/purple, Blue/peach.  It will have you feeling very excited about the temperature shifts of winter.

Jeanne Rosier Smith, AIS, ASMA, PSA-MP, IAPS-EP

For more on painting winter visit Jeanne’s blog “Seeking Warmth in Winter” on her website,, as well as her instructional videos and live demos, at