My family and I spend several days up in Lake Tahoe recently. The family went skiing at Heavenly, and I went painting in the snow!
I don't have much experience painting in the snow, to tell you the truth. When I find myself in snow country, you're more likely to find me inside with a hot cup of coffee than freezing my butt off painting plein air. No, I'm not one of those intrepid plein air painters.
But this time, we had spring conditions - highs in the fifties, and all around the vacation house were beautiful views so I didn't even have to drive out to go painting. Just walk out the back door, plop down my easel, and get to work!
So here are some thoughts about painting snow. Aside from dressing warmly, that is.
Snow is very white (duh) and reflective. So the shadows cast on the snow sometimes look very blue due to the blue sky reflecting off its surface. You can really push this blue as a strategy to include more saturated color– this is useful if the rest of the landscape doesn't have much color punch because all the trees are leafless and drab looking. (That wasn't the case in Tahoe, since the mountains have an abundance of evergreens)
But if you are making your shadows blue, you have to remember that they're caused by the blue sky, which means you probably have a clear, sunny day. The blue sky is going to make other shadows a little cooler too (if not bluer). And even if you have blue sky conditions, the cast shadows which are not open to the sky (such as deeper in the woods, or underneath a log or a bush where the blue isn't reaching) won't be blue. They're just going to be darker, but not necessarily bluer.
Can you make these not-affected-by-the-blue-sky shadows bluer anyway? Just for color's sake? Yes, as long as it doesn't look weird or wrong. One way to ensure that it works is to give the whole painting a slightly blue bias, and paint a near-monochromatic painting, and use a few accent colors to break the monotony.
If the shadows are blue, implying that you have a clear, sunny day, then you also may want to allow the warm sunlight to affect the lit side of the white snow as well. Warm it up with a little yellow rather than painting it straight white.
Again, you have to remember that if the light is affecting the snow, the same light is going to affect everything else that's lit too, so make sure the lit side of the trees and bushes have a little more yellow in them as well.
I found a little creek in the back of the house, and noticed how dark the water looked. It was just waiting to be composed into a sort of abstract design. With a little additional elements (bushes, trees) to provide context, I didn't need much else to create an environment.
The blue shadow at the bottom of the picture was added to provide a little bit of color in an otherwise white and dark brown painting. Can you see that the lit part of the snow is warmed up with a tiny bit of yellow?
This is the house where we were staying. A long driveway leads up to the garage, which isn't particularly interesting but I thought it might make a good memento of our trip.
With this sketch, I didn't change anything. It's very literal. I placed the trees as I saw them, and the snow's edge on the either side of the driveway too, is just as I saw it. Ordinarily I would try to design it a little better, but this time I just wanted to see if I could paint it literally. Why? Sometimes I like to do things like that to reassure myself that when I do make changes, I'm doing so on purpose, and not because I can't draw exactly as I see it. It gives me a dose of confidence to know that I can draw literally, even if doing so results in a less than great sketch. Half the paintings I do are just studies, and not meant to be shown or sold. (Even though I'm showing them here!)
Aside from these four oil sketches, I also did a bunch of little tiny sketches in gouache.
I really don't know how to paint in gouache. I see some of my friends do it beautifully, and I always wanted to learn how to do it, but I never took the time. I thought it was time I got started.
I didn't have high expectations - I just wanted to play around with it and get to know the medium. I knew the value changes from wet to dry was going to be my biggest challenge, so I focused on practicing value control.
None of these are particularly good, but they're fun little sketches and I learned a lot. I think if I do a couple thousand more, I might actually get to a point where I can make good use of the medium and may be get the paint to do what I want, rather than fighting it from start to finish.
I experimented with the logistics of painting these en plein air - tried sitting in a folding chair, using an easel... I ended up using a watercolor block with my Open Box M pochade and a metal folding watercolor palette, but I don't think it was very efficient. If anyone knows a website or blog post somewhere that explains a good set up for watercolor / gouache en plein air, please let me know. Otherwise, I need to grow a third arm to hold everything.