Work In Progress: Glade Creek Grist Mill, Update 2
Before getting into the actual painting process I wanted to discuss some considerations that are important to producing a good representation of snow. I like to do background research on the subject I’m working on as well as the techniques that impact directly on the painting. How do other artists handle the subject. What are their thoughts. Many of them have much more experience than I do and may have painted the subject many times. I think I could benefit from reviewing their discussions on the subject.
White, even the white of snow, is a combination of all three primaries – yellow, red and blue. If you look carefully, hints of these colors can be seen in bright snow, especially where sunlight is refracted off the surface. Debi Watson, in an article on painting snow in Watercolor Artist, December 2010, states that “Most great snow paintings have hints of color in their whites.” To paint snow Ms Watson picks transparent washes of all three primaries and mixes them in varying ratios, laying them down in very light washes for the snow on the ground. Thus, light hints of gold, orange, blue and purple cover the lightest areas of snow. She then uses darker versions of the blues to put in the shadows.
Frank LaLumia, in another article on painting snow, this one from February, 2010 in Watercolor artist describes snow in a similar manner. LaLumia says “Reflected light is everywhere, coloring the snow with an infinite variety of tints”. Cathy Johnson, in the same article, echoes the sentiments of LaLumia, when she says “snow is full of color”. Johnson describes tightly packed snow as darker blue than freshly fallen snow, which can seem almost a light lavender or blue gray. Snow on city streets quickly turns gray as soot mixes in. Country roads contribute dirt to snow as it ages, so browns can be seen mixed in on roadsides.
These effects can be expressed by painting wet into wet, so edges are softened. Ms Johnson achieves the reflective nature of snow by first wetting the paper and then brushing in light tints of the three primaries, principally cadmium yellow, alizarine crimson and phthalo blue. Care must be taken to make sure the colors are just hints of color, enough to be detected but not enough to get your attention. The trick seems to be that when you look at the snow you get a feeling that the colors are there but can’t quite define where they begin and end. Sort of ephemeral. Cecy Turner, another fine watercolorist, lays down separate washes of the three primaries, letting the paper dry completely in between washes. She likes the effect of looking through layers of transparent color.
I found a very nice snow scene of a barn by Mary Ann Boysen. She, too, underpaints her primaries wet into wet. Ms Boysen makes up three pools of primaries, a pink, a yellow and a blue. She washed them in over the entire area where snow lay, first one primary, then the second, then the third, while the paper was still wet. The colors were not layed down uniformly but in a manner that resulted in more pink here, more yellow there, more blue somewhere else. There did, to me seem to be a pattern, though, More of the yellow was in the sunlit areas, the pink and light blue in light shade areas. Blue was washed over all the shaded areas. The important thing to remember was that sharp edges were avoided as they blended in overlapping areas. Boysen suggests using liquid masking fluid to create sparkles in the snow. She uses a toothbrush and spritzes the masking fluid here and there to create tiny dots. The masking fluid can then be removed after all the washes are complete, revealing sparkles.
William Hays’ snow scenes impressed me also, but he has a different approach. Although he, too, recognizes the reflective and refractive nature of snow crystals, producing glimpses of the three primaries, he chooses to use a drybrush technique. Hays under paints cobalt blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow in very light tints by dragging his brush, almost parallel to the surface, across the dry paper, going every which way, in no particular pattern. The result is a very light tint but with lots of dots of white where the paper shows through. This gives the appearance of sparkles in the snow.
Shadows on snow are of two types. The first are cast shadows from objects standing up out of the snow and struck by light. These shadows are darkest, and have the sharpest edges, closest to the object casting the shadow and begin to lighten, with softer edges, the further away from the object they are cast.
The second type of shadow is one that results from the underlying form the snow is covering. They define the shapes underneath, whether an old tire or rock, or just the undulating contour of the ground. When the sun is higher in the sky, these shadows are usually very soft and rounded, with no hard edges, especially as the snow becomes deeper. These shadows blend out into the surrounding area, their edges lost in the transition. Johnson paints in some of the darker blues, such as cobalt blue or ultramarine, while the paper is still wet. Care must be taken, Ms Johnson cautions, that the paper remains very moist, so that no hard edges result. After these washes dry, a light glaze of lavender can be washed over much of the area, leaving spots of the original primaries to show through. Cecy Turner uses Antwerp blue and brown madder for shadows. She also uses French ultramarine, cobalt blue and cerulean blue for shadows, depending on the painting she’s working on.
Contour shadows can take on a different appearance when the sun is low in the sky. Hays says the low angle of the sun creates a hard and a soft edge in the rolling hillocks of the snow. The upper, hard edge defines the contour of the shape, while the lower , soft edge defines the volume of the shape. Hays accomplishes this shaping by painting in the contour of the drifting snow with either a drybush technique or on damp paper, and then softens the bottom of the brush stroke, blending it out into the surrounding area. He then adds washes, maybe four or five, to deepen the tone until he’s satisfied.
Sue Doucette, another watercolorist whose snow scenes I like, suggests using both hard and soft edges to create interest and variety. Sue uses aureolin yellow as a light tint in sunny areas in the foreground. She then introduces rose madder genuine to the mid ground areas. Sparkles in the snow are created by sprinkling salt on the tinted surface when wet, soaking up some of the color. For shadows Sue uses cobalt blue or cobalt blue mixed with a bit of rose madder genuine, allowing the colors to run and blend together.
When capturing heavy snowfalls, observe how the snow forms very soft, rounded domes over objects and softens the contours of the underlying ground. Be sure to maintain that roundness.
Hays uses cobalt blue or cobalt blue with a bit of either alizarin crimson or yellow ochre for his shadows. He recommends, as do other artists, that you use the same colors for all shadows, varying only the tone. Uniformity ties the composition together.
Sue Boysen makes a blue gray shadow color by mixing the three primaries, going a bit heavier on the blue, and washing this mix into all areas in shadow. Darker shadows are the result of heavier mixes.
Reflections on the surface of the snow, cast from the objects poking out, especially with stronger light, add realism to the scene. Johnson suggests that the colors of the object reflected onto the snow can energize the painting.
All of these artists have their own special techniques which they use very successfully to create beautiful images of snow. There are some common concepts running through each of their techniques, however, that seem produce real looking snow. They all recommend underpainting with the primaries in the sunny areas to give the snow an iridescent quality. Some of the artists mix the primaries together on the paper, in separate washes but while the paper is still wet so that the colors blend softly together. Others lay down separate washes, allowing the paper to dry in between, but covering different areas with different primaries.The suggestion of color is there without actually seeing it. You feel its presence more than anything. And that’s what you want to achieve. There is more to snow than white, and achieving interesting patterns and colors is the result of critically analyzing that “white” and more accurately portraying it on paper.
Next week I’ll start on that painting of Glade Creek Grist Mill. We’ll work our way through developing the composition, to value and color sketches, to painting the scene.
The painting shown here is Winter’s Edge by Cecy Turner.