Saturday, February 4, 2012


Rio Snow, 12" x 9"

Snow settles over the land with a shimmer and weight that blurs and softens the shapes of everything it covers. Its startling whiteness shifts the values of the landscape painting, forcing the artist to paint the ground, rather than the sky, as the lightest plane in the picture, and to structure the painting carefully to achieve a clean, bold whiteness. Although many think snow a simple subject to paint, it presents special challenges to pastelists because of the medium’s inherent tendency to blend on the paper when applied in layers and the fact that colors that are not crisply applied and left untouched can become muddy looking. Avoiding these pitfalls takes forethought and planning, as well as knowledge in handling the medium.

The first hazard the artist encounters in painting snow is that of value shift. It seems simple enough: In a snow painting the land becomes the lightest plane, the sky is medium-light and the trees are dark. But does the fact that the land plane becomes lightest perhaps force the sky to become a medium value? No! The sky is still the same light value it has always been, but the ground is often lighter in value when covered with a fresh blanket of snow. Value relationships are the key. Another casualty of the shift in values is often the colors in the snow. It’s very easy to see the snow scene as overly black and white, neglecting the chance for surprising color, as well as simplifying the value range far too much. This can result in unrealistically strong contrast, which omits medium-dark and medium-light values entirely.
Mountain Snow, 8" x 11"
Photographic prints, especially those taken by amateur photographers, often validate oversimplification and lead the student artist astray. Because cameras average the light coming into the lens, in all but the most expert of hands a print will be overly dark in dark areas or overly light in light areas. All detail and nuance of color is lost in the shadows or washed away by the light. Spend time observing the values and colors of snow without relying on a photograph to portray it for you. As you step outside on a cold, snowy day you might first notice the whiteness of the snow, and then perhaps the color of the sky. Spend time looking for the subtleties of color in the snow. Generally you will see warm colors in the sunlight and cool colors in shadows. When the light is one color the shadows are usually the opposite, but the color depends on many variables. Remember aerial perspective holds true. Distance flavors all colors, strewing the light around the landscape so that colors become lighter in value and cooler in color as they recede from the viewer in all instances -- except that of white. As white recedes it becomes slightly darker and duller. It remains its whitest in the near foreground.

Sunlit Snow, 12" x 12" (underdrawing, charcoal)
Shadows on snow will shift with distance, generally from greenish-blue in the fore to lavender-blue in the middle ground to pure blue in the distance, as the air progressively filters out yellow and red. Shadow colors on snow often depend on the color of the sky. Look for a shadow crossing new-fallen snow. See how the sky color is captured there, dark beneath its source and lightening slightly with distance. Snow is extremely reflective. Because it’s light in color (literally containing all colors in white light), snow reflects a greater percentage of light. Consider a snow-covered hillside that forms a soft bowl at its foot. Depending on which way it faces, the shadowed face may contain subtly different colors because the sky reflected in it will vary slightly. The sky is somewhat darker at the zenith and paler at the horizon, as well as slightly warmer in the quadrant near the sun and cooler away from the sun. This means that the colors in shadows on snow may be some permutation of warm or cool, very pale or somewhat darker, and range in color from blue-green to lavender to pure blue depending on the distance from the viewer. This allows for exciting color possibilities in both sunlight and shadows on snow. Reflections in snow can also be found in more intimate surroundings. Look for the color of a wall or fence reflected against the snow bank beneath it. Bounce colors from nearby objects into the shadows, thereby creating particularly beautiful temperature changes. A reflection can season the color of the shadow nearby, causing another dimension of color in the snow. Layering colors creates subtle variations, particularly in deep shadow areas. Even the darkest shadows in snow are fairly light in value.

After a heavy snowfall, the outlines of objects become muffled and soft, blanketed with a thick, velvety whiteness that blunts hard edges. The barn becomes a giant pillow pointing its corner skyward, the car a marshmallow shape in the hollow of the driveway. Trees become weighed down by the wetness of the snow. Look for the way the branches are pushed down until the snow atop them becomes part of the bank beneath. Don’t miss the heaviness of snow. Also, find places where the rich, dark soil punctuates the snow as it begins to melt, forming deep pools around plants and grasses. Concentrate on these edges, which are crisp where they touch the ground but remain rounded above. Be especially careful in places where dark colors reside in front of light ones, and must therefore be painted dark over light. It’s best not to overwork these spots, which is bound to cause muddy-looking patches. Plan your painting carefully so that you can use one deliberate stroke of color, then stop while it’s fresh.

A snow drift is an exercise in hard and soft, sharp edges and blended slopes. Find the direction of the sun and the defining shadow. Without any shadow, drifts are seen as subtle variations of warm and cool. Look for the crisp line along the top edge and the soft slide of snow, like a mountain in miniature. See how you can define this slope using colors that are layered and softly blended together to create the shadow side, adding a line of light color where the sun blazes. If there is a cornice where the snow has blown over the top and frozen in place or a cast shadow crossing the drift, you have an added chance to define the shape of the drift with color, blending and edges.
Winter Sun and Shadows, 12" x 18"
Although there are generalizations that can assist you in painting snow, hard and fast rules need to be suspended. The reflective brightness of snow changes everything. So be adventurous, try new colors, layers and new techniques. Painting snow with pastels is a very satisfying experience. Snow is light in color and value, the strongest range of colors available in the medium. Pastelists therefore have virtually endless choices of colors to use. Snow’s rounded softness is easily captured by lightly blending colors to show the swish and slide of shadows. The reflective qualities of pastel mimic the sparkle and shine of snow with ease. All in all, pastel is well suited to painting snow.


There are different techniques you can use to paint falling snowflakes, but it’s best to paint the entire image before adding any falling flakes. Choose a subject with muted light since snow falls from clouds that obscure the light. It’s not necessary to have a photograph of snow falling on the scene you’re painting since photos are hard to capture, but study such photos for evidence of how to make snow look realistic.

For instance, there will not be any strong shadows in the photo, nor will there be strong dark and light contrasts. Paint the softly muted colors that come from low ambient light. Use a palette of subdued light to medium-light colors, with an occasional dark to punctuate the painting. Remember that in a high-key painting with low contrast darks become very strong punctuation. Carefully place these darks to draw the eye. Because the light is low, your lightest colors will not be strongly white in color, so reserve the use of white for the end, assuring yourself that you’ll have lights to use if needed. Many paintings of falling snow will have no pure white in them at all. Put your white aside for the majority of the painting.

Notice how falling snow looks in a photograph. There are near and far flakes seen in varying degrees of light colors, the nearer ones bigger and brighter. The pattern of flakes is random and swirling, not evenly spaced like wallpaper. The flakes may look light against darker areas and sometimes darker against the whiter areas -- but not always. At times the light flakes simply disappear against the lightest areas of the painting. You don’t have to show every flake. Less is often more!

To make the final falling flakes choose several colors in various light and medium-light shades. Begin by dotting in a few key spots to draw the eye, adding colors judiciously. Notice the angle at which the flakes are falling. Sometimes the wind whips them into swirls, although there’s usually a prevailing direction. Stop after each layer of dots, making sure to vary the sizes and colors to create the illusion of depth. Do not allow all of the dots to be uniform in shape. Fat flakes may be oddly lumpy. Small flakes may appear as short dashes. If you make the mistake of painting every falling flake as a dash of the same length and color it will end up looking like pouring rain. Take care to see how the pattern of flakes draws the eye -- and remember, it’s easier to put a few more in than take them out! If you make a mistake and feel the falling flakes must be changed, you’ll be forced to wipe out quite a bit of your painting.

You may try using white spray paint to make snow. Carefully drift the spray over your finished painting. Be cautious, however, as once it’s there any changes you try to make will be obvious and usually unsuccessful. Perhaps a more effective means to make incidental snowflakes is to use a razor blade to shave off bits of pale-colored pastel onto the surface of your finished painting, laid flat on a tabletop. A second pass can be done with a very light drift of pure white pastel to simulate the nearest and brightest snowflakes. When the results please you, place a piece of clean newsprint over the top of the finished painting and briskly rub the flat of your hand over it to burnish the bits into the paper.

Cold Blue, 9" x 12"

Last Snow, 9" x 12"


  1. Another wonderful chapter here, Deborah! Lovely examples you provide as always.

  2. great blog and wonderful information. great work..
    God bless,

  3. It's so nice to hear these things. :) Thank you Sonya and Gary!

  4. I just recently discovered your wonderful book while looking for information on how to paint a night scene of a winter (snow) landscape containing the aurora borealis. My attemps have been a disaster. As a total beginner, clearly I am not up to the task. Consequently, I look forward to reading every chapter of your book.

  5. This chapter has been so helpful to me as I attempt (again) to paint a snow scene. Thank you Deborah and God bless.
    (Monica from England)

  6. Thank you ever so much for all your freely-given encouragement.


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah