I don’t often have the opportunity to paint snow scenes from the actual subject. Snow, in this part of Texas is not very common, however, once in a while we are blessed with a beautiful blanket of that fluffy white stuff; 2015 was the last significant snowfall that I can recall.
The first two paintings (below) were painted from my north facing studio window. (Click images to enlarge)
…and when there is no snow, I create my own.
I am not a fan of cold weather but I do know that nothing is impossible with God, so I would like to some day be able to set up my easel in the snow while wearing shorts and a T-shirt…and enjoying glorious 70 degree temperatures. In my younger days, I did paint outside in the snow but now I paint in a more comfortable setting because my hands are extremely sensitive to cold, even 50 degree weather might require gloves.
What silence, shattered by the simple sound of a shovel!…
I awake, greeted by this fresh snow which penetrates to the core of my precious warmth. My eyes open to a day of obdurate whiteness and my languorous body cringes at its purity. Oh! how many snowflakes during my sweet absence must the dark skies have given up during the course of the night! This pure desert that fell soundlessly from the darkness has blanketed the features of the beguiling earth beneath; this ample whiteness so secretly accumulated melds it into a faceless, voiceless place. Where the eye, disoriented, is drawn to rooftops hiding their treasure of ordinary life, barely offering the promise of a wisp of smoke.
Paul Valery (1871-1945)
No! not what you’re thinking…
Do you know snow is not really white? It’s actually clear/transparent, glass like. When water freezes inside clouds, ice crystals form. The ice crystals form around tiny bits of dirt that have been carried up into the atmosphere by the wind. The ice crystals join together creating snowflakes. Once the flakes are heavy enough, they float to the ground at 3.1 mph.
Each snowflake is made up of from 2 to 200 individual crystals, and each of these crystals come in one of six basic shapes. As snowflakes pile up, all these little ice crystals act as tiny prisims reflecting the light and scattering the color, thereby creating the appearance of white. Snow is not always white however, because the color of the soil carried up into the atmosphere can affect the color.
Most snowflakes are less than one-half inch across, but amazingly, the largest recorded snowflake was 15″ in diameter. The colder it is outside, the smaller snowflakes tend to be and the most beautiful, fluffiest snow occurs around 15 degrees.
A few other interesting facts about snow…averaging 94″ of snow annually, New York City receives more snow than any of the other largest US cities. Practically every location in the US has received snow at some point, even south Florida and Hawaii. A record breaking snowfall for Phoenix occurred in 1933…one inch. Finally, if there is a blizzard in the forecast, run out and load up on cakes, cookies and candy, a lot of other people do.
Lots of artists paint snow, and many of them do it very very well. Here are only a few of those whose work I really appreciate.
“Pissarro painted this piece during the unusually snowy and frigidly cold winter of 1879. He may have painted it while indoors, viewing this scene from the window of his house. From this vantage point atop a hill, rooftops rendered in blues, grays, and whites are visible in the distant town. In the middle distance, Pissarro enlivened the palette of predominant yellows, blues, greens, and whites by adding accents of red to render the houses chimneys. A figure is barely visible among the trees and vegetation as he gathers wood. He is painted in much the same manner and with the same tonalities as the trees and stucco buildings, and as a result nearly recedes into his surroundings.
“Within this one painting, Pissarro’s handling of the paint varies from thin and smooth in the sky, to uncharacteristically thick and roughly applied in the foreground. As suggested by the painting’s title, though not clearly delineated, (that’s for sure), a pack of rabbits huddle in their snow-covered warren on a cold winter’s day. (A warren is an artificial, enclosed establishment of animal husbandry dedicated to the raising of rabbits for meat and fur). Since their earliest days at Pontoise, Julie Pissarro raised chickens and rabbits to feed the family in order to ease their often distressed circumstances. The warren referred to in the painting’s title may have, therefore, belonged to the Pissarro family.” (“Impressionists in Winter” – Philip Wilson Publishers 1998)
Having previously visited a painting location, Hibbard composed the picture mentally and memorized the impression it made on him as well as possible. “I set up the easel, and during the first day make a layout on a large canvas. This is painted very thinly with plenty of turpentine, almost a watercolor technique with colors that approximate the probable final scheme.
“If the desired effect is a fleeting one – it usually is – and I cannot hope to paint it directly on the large canvas, I have several small canvases ready for very rapid sketches when the sun reaches its appointed place. I may make several such sketches at different times before I’m ready to finish the large canvas. This may be done in the studio, though my general practice is to complete the pictures on the spot.
“To reduce glare, reflected from the snow upon the canvas, a piece of black cloth spread out under the easel and the feet of the painter is some help, but even so the picture has to be painted on the palette. Unless the artist can judge the right color before it goes onto the canvas, he is lost.”
“For over two weeks in January of 1893, the Seine went through a period of freezing and thawing that produced dramatic ice floes. These pieces of ice floated for several days, and inspired Monet to produce this subtle atmospheric study. The work is a triumph of atmosphere. It is distinguished by its delicate palette of light blue, green, pink, and white.” (“Impressionists in Winter” – Philip Wilson Publishers 1998)
George Inness Jr. writes concerning this painting: “It was painted just behind the artist’s house, where many a field of waving corn and many a green pasture dotted with sheep was painted. But now it is all white; its winter blanket is spread over all, keeping the earth warm until the coming of spring. There is nothing startling in this great work of art, and yet you are filled with a sense of bigness, grandeur, and the very conviction of truth and nature.”
This is a very pale picture, economically done. All lines are blurred, everything is still, except for the action created by the two lines leading to the house with the big tree next to it. Here we have an almost “abstract” composition, carried by the juxtaposition of the snow’s whiteness and the reddishness of the evening sky. (“Inness Landscapes”, by Alfred Werner, Watson Guptill Publisher)
“There is always a slight bit of subsurface scattering going on in snow, even on overcast days, this softens transitions between light and shadow and gives the snow a tinge of the hue from whatever local color is affecting it. Where the sunlight hits snow, it spreads out in almost in a prismatic effect, the shadow areas pick up the light of the sky color and reflections from sunlit areas. Because of all of these effects, snow is never pure white except where you have a direct highlight from the sun. When you are in a position to actually see the highlights, you quickly realize how much relatively darker the rest of the snow is even in the lit areas.”
Paquet believes, “In nature’s most brutal moments I find great beauty. Where the violence of nature commingles with exquisite subtlety I find great excitement. I suppose I simply prefer my beauty with teeth in it.”
Kearns says, “A trick for painting snow is to drop the value down a notch, that way you can express the different planes of its form in several values rather than just in white. When a camera shot is overexposed and all the values are blown out, snow painted with only one very high value gets blown out as well. Snow is reflective, like a frosted mirror. The planes are of different values, depending on their relationship to the light source. The top facing planes might be very bright while those on the side walls of a drift will be lower in value. If you only use one value you have no planar definition, and unfortunately, that’s how snow appears when you stand in front of it. You need to figure out the planar structure and cheat your values to make it look right. Observation alone will not take you there, you must use imagination as well.”
“Snow themed motifs have always been an intriguing subject for me,” say Matt Smith. “First, there are the challenges of working from life in those conditions. That’s always interesting. Next, and even better, is snow reacts differently to light than most elements. It reflects it rather than absorbs it…at least more so than most other objects in the average landscape; that means one oftentimes sees nearly every color in the prism within form shadow, and wildly cool cools in cast shadows. Additionally, areas in direct light can be influenced by the color of elements around them as well. These nuances are beyond photography and need to be witnessed firsthand if one is to paint them believably. It’s a challenge, but well worth the effort and discomfort.”
Michael Godfrey lives in Glenn Dale, Maryland. “In the mid-Atlantic region, we have four distinct seasons, of which, winter is my favorite. I paint my local region and areas from the western states. The snow season in the east differs from the west in that we tend to get wetter, heavier snowfalls that stick and cling to everything; this effect, along with lighting situations, I find mesmerizing. Snow can transform an ordinary scene to something extraordinary. I’m always amazed at this. The reflectivity of snow is a joy to paint. The key to painting a good snow scene is to understand that one is looking at a “blanket” of frozen beauty where the hues are influenced by all the surrounding elements. I pay close attention to the sky’s coloration, as it will greatly influence the values, the colors found in cast shadows, and the reflected light.”
David Griffin states, “In addition to all the obvious uses of snow in a painting: color, beauty, temperature, value and mood, it always seems to simplify the landscape. Whether I use it in small patches or larger areas it gives the eye a place to relax; it’s the great equalizer giving the painting a symmetrical, calming and contemplative effect, reducing everything down to the essence of whatever it covers. To me, it’s a wonderful gift from God enhancing His creation.”
Thanks to my fellow artists for contributing to this blog post. Joe Paquet, I was not able to reach, so I took the liberty to lift a painting and quote from his website. I like his work too much to leave him out. I also took the same liberty with the quote from Armand Cabrera. Want to see more of these great artist’s works? Click links below. Please let me know if this blog post inspired and helped you.
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