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Let It Snow

(click on any painting to view it larger)

I live in Colorado, on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The area gets about 300 days of sun, and, generally speaking, the winters around here are fairly mild. It’s not unusual to get a few inches of snow and have the following day be sunny, and in the high forties or low fifties. It makes painting on-location, in the snow, fairly painless. Anyway, I got an itch to do some snow scenes, and I thought I’d share the demos and some thoughts about snow with you.

Someone could actually write a book about snow, and its unique visual properties. But, I’m not going to do that here. I’ll just point out a few things that may be of interest, and get on with the demonstrations.

Generally speaking, since light emanates from the sky, the sky is most often the brightest mass in the landscape. However, snow on the ground will, by and large, prove the exception to the rule. It is usually the brightest element in the landscape. It’s that sparkle and punchiness that makes snow scenes so much fun to paint.

Here’s something else of interest: We all know that things get lighter and cooler as they recede. With the exception of what (?):


White gets warmer and darker as it recedes. If you don’t believe me, go out and look at strings of clouds. The overhead clouds will be bright white, and the clouds closer to the horizon will be warmer and darker. This is, of course, because there is more density in the atmosphere at the horizon. Well, snow operates the same way. How many paintings of mountain landscapes have you seen ruined by out-of-the-tube white paint being slathered on the distant mountains? It just doesn’t work that way in real life.

Finally, we all know how sky holes in the trees work. No sky hole will have a value as light as the naked sky, and, the smaller the sky hole, the darker the value. Of course, this has to do with the amount of light being allowed through the aperture.

There is a similar phenomenon with snow. A large body of snow will reflect more light and be a lighter value than a small patch of snow (which reflects less light). Also, snow patches tend to be irregular shapes, and the tentacles and smaller parts of the snow patch will be a darker value than the main body.

Demonstration: Winter Wood

I was playing around with designs, and I came up with a watercolor sketch that I thought would work pretty well as a larger piece.

(Note: I know I’ve talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating. I have dozens of sketchbooks of paintings and drawings I have done abroad, in cafes and bars, and a bunch that are full of paintings like the following sketch – used to experiment and work out problems. They have proved to be a constant source of inspiration throughout my entire career).

Study for Winter Wood 9x12 wc

The following painting was painted on Kilimanjaro 300 lb. paper, using only ultramarine blue, venetian red and new gamboge.

 Step One:

After drawing in my main elements I tone my lightest value areas with faint washes of my three primaries. White paper, in snow scenes, can look a bit anemic in the final product (this is also true in oil paintings). A little subtle color can really enliven a snow passage. This will be hardly noticeable in the completed painting. I let this dry.




Step Two:

Using a combination of my red and blue, I put a middle value tone over everything but my light-struck areas. I let this dry.


Step Three:

 I model my shadowed snow areas with more blue and red, and, with the addition of my yellow, I add color to my tree trunks. Note that the trunks painted over the blue background are more muted than my main tree, which I left white paper. I let this stage dry.


Step Four:
Now, using my red and blue, I paint the distant background in one wet-into-wet application, from start to finish. I cut around shapes from my previous steps.

Step Five:
Now I model my trees, add branches and suggest detail with some dry brush and strokes with a rigger. This pretty much completes the top half of the painting.

Step Six:
I do some further modeling on the foreground snow, and suggest an open pool of water. I think the little pond is a nice counter balance to the main tree.


I finish off the painting by scumbling in some scrub oak, and adjusting the light on the overhanging branch, and modeling my light-struck snow.

“Winter Wood” 14x20 watercolor

My studio looks out on some forests and fields, and there are a couple of horses that graze year round in the canyons and forests behind the house. One day, last spring, we were struck by a snow blizzard. I was painting an oil in my studio when I looked out toward the forest, and saw the two horses plaintively staring at me through the blinding snow. It was a moving experience, and I grabbed an 11x14 panel and made an attempt to capture the pathos of the scene. I gave the painting to my friend, Joni, a shaman, who has spent her life working with animals.

“Blizzard” 14x11 oil

This year we’ve had a couple of blizzards, and they reminded me of that experience. So I thought I would attempt a watercolor with a similar feel. The result is the following piece, “Snowbound” – 11x15 w/c. I’m including this painting because it’s an approach I hadn’t used before.

I painted the whole piece with cobalt blue, venetian red, a slight amount of yellow ochre (to warm and gray some areas) and titanium white. I coated the entire sheet with a wash of titanium white and let that dry. I then painted the background and the foreground wet-into-wet; start to finish, painting around the horses. When that dried, I painted the horses and the little scrub bushes in the front. After that, I took a toothbrush and spattered some titanium over the entire piece. I can hear the purists out there screaming, “Oh my God! He used white paint!” I’ve said this before: We are painters, making paintings, not dogma. Remember, all the tools and techniques you have are merely a means to an end. They are only dangerous when they become an end in themselves.

Snowbound 15x11 w/c

The Rio Chama meanders through a beautiful valley in North Central New Mexico. For many years, it has remained one of my favorite places to paint. I especially love it in the winter, when patches of snow sparkle in the russet-colored winter brush.

Here’s a quick demo of a watercolor sketch that turned into a studio oil.

Step One: 
I do a basic drawing, and, using permanent rose, cobalt blue and new gamboge, I tone my snow areas, reminding myself that the distant snow areas will be darker and warmer.


Step Two:
Using the same three pigments, I lay in the distant hills, model the distant cottonwoods, and tone the shadowed snow along the embankment and the river’s edge.

Step Three:
Now, with the addition of some burnt sienna and venetian red, I scumble in the warm brush, lining the riverbanks.


I got involved at this point and forgot to shoot an intermediate step. So, this probably looks like some quantum leap. I painted in the half-value trees in the upper right, and then painted the darker middle ground trees over them, and put some shadows under them. (Note: There’s quite a bit of warmth in the middle ground trees.) Lastly, I paint the water in dark, and charge in various combinations of colors used in the landscape. As they run down, they simulate reflections. The water is done wet-into-wet, and I painted around those horizontal surface lines, which, after the passage was dry, I toned with a neutral mixture. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit choppy overall. That’s OK. That’s the reason to paint these little studies. They help you to work out the kinks, and have a clearer vision of what the final work will look like.

Chama Valley Winter 9x13 wc

Here’s a photo of the ensuing 24x30 oil painting:

Chama Valley Winter 24x30 oil

Lastly, I’m including a 11x15 watercolor of an old windmill that’s about a quarter mile north of the house. I like the design of this piece, and it has an almost Oriental simplicity.

January Out Back 11x15 w/c

Well, that’s about it for now. Snow is a bit site specific, and, I would suspect, the subject is not of pressing interest to my readers in the southern U.S, Australia and the Philippines. Thanks for indulging me this month. As always, if you have any suggestions for future articles – email me and let me know.

Happy Painting!