How to create a snowscape

The east coast is in for some nasty weather this weekend. It’s time to bundle up and stay inside—or, if you’re a painter, a great time to experiment with wintertime landscapes. Painting snow is tricky because light acts differently in snowscapes than in other landscapes. We think of snow as being white, but because it is refractive, it is actually whiter than white, and not white at the same time. There are many values and hue present in a snowy landscape. Realistically rendering snow is tricky. Here are some tips for achieving realistic snow—these pointers are geared towards oil and acrylic landscape painting, but many of the same concepts apply to other forms of painting and dry media as well! (Pictured above: "Sea of Mud," Alexei Savrasov, oil painting, 1894.)

(1.) Find Your View and Stay Warm

Most people prefer to paint a snowy landscape from a window, or reference photos. You can also paint outside, but winter plein air is not for the faint of heart! Always check the forecast before you go out to paint. If it’s below freezing, it might be impossible to paint quickly enough, especially with paints like watercolors. Wear real gloves or latex gloves if you can, and take breaks to warm your hands in your pockets or warm up indoors. Temperature-wise, midday is a good time for painting. Don’t forget to moisturize your hands if you are exposing them to a lot of cold, dry air when you work.

Painting indoors is much easier for painting snowscapes. Set your easel or workspace up in front of a window and take your time. Do you want to paint from the ground level, or from higher up? Do you want to focus on a sweeping landscape or the flora, fauna and other objects in your backyard? Cityscapes and bird’s eye views can make fascinating scenes as well.

Whether you want to paint a true-to-life scene or a composite, it’s useful to go outside before you begin painting and take a series of reference photos from several perspectives. You can also take shots of the same view at different times of day to observe light changes and different phases of snowfall.

(2.) Keep it Clean

It’s easy to muck up white with multiple colors, so be sure to continuously clean your brushes. You might want to use more brushes than you normally do to cut down on cleaning time. Within the white of the snow, you will see a range of hues—blue, purple, pink, brown, gold. Snow doesn’t just appear white, but as a range of colors and values. Blues, grays and purples are almost always used when painting snow, but browns, yellows, pinks and greens may have their place in your scene as well. Keeping your brushes clean will ensure that everything doesn’t turn into a brown-gray color.

Use color sparingly when mixing your different whites. Add color little by little, especially with higher quality paints. Professional paint tends to have a much higher pigment load, so you will barely add any color to your white. You can experiment by using different whites as your base: Titanium White and Radiant White will work great for creating a snow scene, especially if you are working in oil. Titanium has the highest tinting strength of all whites and Radiant White is the brightest white. Zinc White is more suitable for glazes because it is more transparent than other whites.

(3.) Watch for Reflected Hues and Shadows

Snow reflects the colors of the objects around it. The red brick wall of a house, a muddy roadway, a bright plastic lawn chair sitting in the snow, quiet evergreen trees—what do you see in your yard, and how does the snow around it change to reflect those colors?

Large areas of snow will reflect the sky if there is nothing else around—if the sky is bright blue, your snow should be a more subdued reflection of that hue. If the sky is grey with clouds, your largest areas of snow will be gray; if it is dusk, your snow may appear pink and purple in reflection of the fading winter sunset.

White tends to appear warmer as it recedes, so incorporate yellows and pinks into your snow as it travels into the distances towards the horizon—then perhaps back into purple and blue shadows in the farthest distance. In the foreground, the closer whites will require blue hues. The middle ground in a snowy landscape tends to have a purplish hue; shadows also tend to appear blueish and purple.

Shadows in the snow will have more light within them than typical shadows. Notice how light reflects on tiny peaks and drifts and how foreground shadows can appear very, very blue. You will almost never see pure white in a snowy landscape, but a wide range different hues and values.

(4.) What’s Whiter than White? Orange.

Real snow is actually whiter than white because of the way light reacts on its surface. This unusual trick for creating bright, luminescent snow may surprise you. To create the illusion of refracted light, use a tiny dot of Cadmium Orange to make the snow appear whiter. A very tiny dot. Small specks of orange, placed in the right area or areas can really make the white pop. Using orange tints in your trees or other plants, as well as dark blue accents, can also make the snow look whiter relative to those hues.

Underpainting is another way to experiment with snowscapes. Priming your canvas with orange or bright blue can make your finished painting pop and glow in interesting ways. Texture is another great element to experiment with when painting snow. We have focused on color in this post, but the possibilities with texture and snow are endless. You can work with a palette knife to build texture, or mix in grounds. What are some other ways you can experiment with snow paintings?