Snow Painting

Preparing for the Delights and Challenges
of Winter Painting

For a landscape painter one of the joys of winter is the exhilarating experience of painting a snow scene in the open air. The excitement of a snow painting is just as much a visual experience as it is about braving the weather. Of course the extreme conditions of winter painting pose a unique set of challenges, but since snow can transform an otherwise mundane subject into something special, it’s well worth the effort.

Before venturing out the snow painter would do well to make sure they are prepared for the worst. The following items are ones I have found useful in adverse winter conditions.

Staying warm is crucial so dressing in layers is a must. A coat with a hood is helpful when the wind blows as well as a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from the sun.

A good pair of snow boots with a thick pair of breathable socks is another good investment. I often use a pair of snow shoes for really deep snow conditions to keep from sinking in up to my waist. One time I was painting with a friend — who shall go unnamed — who opted to leave his snow shoes in the 4 Runner because he thought he could just stand out there in his regular boots. About half way through the painting session I heard a shriek and noticed that he practically disappeared in the fluffy stuff. I couldn’t help but mutter something like “I saw that one coming about a half hour ago”! Ha! That’s the camaraderie of painting with friends; it’s all in good fun! Another good trick I learned years ago from painting with Ken Baxter, was to take along a carpet sample about 2 – 3 feet wide to stand on while you are painting; keeps your feet in place while adding an extra layer of foot protection.

One thing about painting in snow is that the light hits your eyes from all directions, sometimes making the painting situation almost impossible. To shade my eyes from the peripheral light that comes in from the sides and the ground I always take along a pair of fit-over sunglass frames that I have popped the lenses out of, and use them if the conditions warrant. Believe me, you look like a dork wearing these, but the relief on your vision is well worth the fashion disaster. An additional bonus for the ladies is that some wisecracking guy in a pick-up truck named “Bubba” doesn’t even give you a second look, thus freeing you up to concentrate on the painting process! These glasses can be purchased from most sporting goods stores, like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse. The next item that is a real must is a hand warmer or two. These also can be purchased at the outlets. Additionally, for hand protection while maintaining the dexterity to paint, I recommend those brown cotton gardening gloves found in every grocery store. You can use them as is, or snip off the ends of the fingers. The best part is that you won’t care about getting paint on them because they are cheap, cheap, cheap! Top that off with a thermos full of your favorite hot winter beverage and you are set to go.

Once you have prepared for the weather you can turn your attention to the more weighty matter of painting a snow scene. Let me end with several tips.

When painting snow the biggest error is to paint it using white paint alone. The fact that snow is supposed to be “white” can confuse the mind and cloud the judgment. It’s the same problem in painting a gold or silver vase; gold and silver paint won’t do the job. It’s the way gold and silver look in a certain setting and light that gives it its characteristic look. These are highly reflective surfaces that pick up colors and values from their surroundings and that is the thing to look for. The same is true of snow and water, they are highly reflective. So the object is to paint what you are actually seeing and not what you know about a particular material. In painting gold for instance you might see brown, yellow, green or red or any other color, that’s what you put down on the canvas. Same with snow, the color choices are endless, go for what you see and that will be your safest course; then you are really painting! When in doubt of what colors would work on snow, start with colors that are in the sky and work in other colors from forms on the land as well. Observation is always the key, but this idea will get you started.

Remember the value may be something other than what you expect. To illustrate this principle, trudge out into an open snow field on a sunny day. It looks very light until you throw a snow ball and observe the edges of the hole left behind. Often these edges are a step or two lighter than the main body of the surrounding snow; that should tell you something about how light or dark to make the rest of the snow. When in doubt, observe by scanning your eyes across several forms and make comparisons constantly.

Now bundle up and enjoy that winter painting.

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