Painting Snow Scenes

In oil


With winter upon us, Noel Gregory offers some helpful advice for capturing the seasonal scenes with some fantastic results…

Materials

Oil paints:

  • Cadmium
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Permanent Mauve
  • Cobalt Violet
  • Windsor Blue
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Viridian Green
  • Burnt Umber
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Titanium White
  • Naples Yellow
  • Lemon Yellow

Canvas:

  • Small to Medium sized canvas

Brushes:

  • Size 6 hog
  • Long Filbert
  • Size 4 short flat
  • Size 4 long flat
  • Size 2 round

Medium:

  • Linseed Oil and Turpentine - Half and Half

Have you ever thought of painting a snow scene? It will give you a valuable lesson in tone and colour. My students have often asked me for a demonstration of snow painting and because living in Spain rarely gives an opportunity to do some on the spot work, I was pleased when visiting England last Christmas to be snowed-in for two weeks and to be in the perfect position to paint the scene from my bedroom window.
Snow scenes are very different from any other scenes; their tonal and colour combinations are unlike any other - the sky is often darker and the ground white showing strong shadows with any trees in silhouette. This can be the complete reversal of the normal structures in landscapes but they are a great challenge and can be a real test in seeing colour in what at first seems to be just a black and white subject. If you want to see just how well snow scenes can be painted take a look at Joseph Farquarson 1846 to 1935 for all the inspiration you may need. You may have seen his work on Christmas cards where sheep, sunsets and a shepherd are produced with all the talent and compositional ability that put him with the greats of Victorian painting. He is a master in seeing all the colours that snow possesses and will be a great help in understanding that even snow can have warmth of colour and still look cold.

1 So let’s get started with the general composition and to make it immediately cold looking I have chosen an Ultramarine Blue wash and a large brush in order to get the basic drawing.
This can be done with only an indication of where the main structures should be and the best thing about oils is that this can be quite crude in construction and changed easily by over-painting. The first important marks to be made are the horizon line and the angle of the road, with the trees coming as a secondary consideration. Once you are happy with these you can start to establish some tonal structure to complete this first stage.

2 The first attempts of adding colour can be established now with the addition of Viridian Green and orange and purple. If you look closely at snow, these colours can often be clearly seen. I have placed the main structure with scrubbing movements of the brush which, when the canvas is covered, gives me a base to add more detail. As always the most important point of any picture is the tonal structure and by getting this right at an early stage lets you sort out the white areas of snow where it will only stand out if the surrounding areas are dark enough. There is of course no such white that is whiter than the canvas you start with; you can add white paint but it’s the addition of the tonal colours that surround it that will give you the desired effect. This may sound obvious but many of my students find it difficult to see just how dark they have to make it before the snow works for them satisfactorily.

3 This is where the real painting work comes in. The main structure is how I want it, so now I must spend my time over-painting the base with more and more colour and drawing. I am now going to paint the morning sun just coming over the hill – it is this that will provide the reason for all the shadows and colour. In reality it is just another light area with warm tones blended into the sky and surroundings. It is also important to use these colour mixes throughout the painting to reflect conformity with the sky.

4 With all the areas painted I enjoyed adding impasto white to the lightest areas, giving it a texture not unlike now and adding more substance than thin paint alone.

This is the finished sketch and I feel it looks cold with sufficient colour not to give it the black and white look. Within two days of completion the weather came in with a vengeance and left me stranded before a snow plough let even a 4 x 4 out.

5 After completing this snow scene I felt it worked well and didn’t think more about the image until a few weeks later one of my students said “Do you know what’s wrong with your painting? Just look at the shadows!” She was quite right - I hadn’t really been concentrating when I was painting during the morning and had disregarded what was happening - the shadows were changing as the sun moved across the sky.

So by looking at the angle from the sun to the trees and reforming the shadows I think the painting works so much better. It just proves that no matter how much you improve your craft, simple mistakes happen to us all. If the great Monet can make a mistake with some of his angles on boat reflections, then surely there is hope for us all. Please have a go at painting your own snow scene. Not only will you enjoy it but it will increase your all important understanding of tone, so happy painting.

6 Following on from the original concept, in this painting (below) Noel has added Joseph Farquharson's sheep for added interest, this time on a large canvas using Interactive Acrylics.