Painting the Brightness of Sunlit Snow

Large snow storms give us opportunities to study the unique light, colors and shadows that only snow cover provides. Painting snow presents many challenges to the plein air painter–the least of which is the cold. The primary difficulty is the intense light reflected by the snow. This causes us to squint down, and in so doing we darken the entire scene before us somewhat. This is fine when painting the lights, but it gets very troublesome as we peer into the shadow areas. The iris opens up to take in more light, giving us false information about the value and temperature of the shadows. Switching back and forth between shadow and light can not only cause us to paint our values incorrectly, but also get the color temperature of those shadows wrong.

The brightness of sunlit snow can also throw off our reading of the color temperature of it. It can be easy to see the snow as pure white, but generally it is not. Snow can have anything from a cool, bluish cast to a warm, yellow-orange cast, depending on the time of day. The local color of objects nearby can also reflect onto and influence the color of snow. The best approach when outdoor painting this icy subject is to make careful observations and comparisons from the outset in order to get the color down correctly and to always reserve pure white for the little highlights here and there where the sun hits the snow head-on.

To illustrate this, we set up a tripod on a plein air painting spot facing south southeast to capture the changing snow and shadow colors under our large burning bushes. The camera (a Canon G11) was set to automatic settings. We took pictures at four different times during the day, making exposures two and a half hours apart. Here are our results (with no Photoshop corrections).

We set up a tripod on a plein air painting spot facing south southeast to capture the changing snow and shadow colors under our large burning bushes. We set up a tripod on a plein air painting spot facing south southeast to capture the changing snow and shadow colors under our large burning bushes.
We set up a tripod on a plein air painting spot facing south southeast to capture the changing snow and shadow colors under our large burning bushes. We set up a tripod on a plein air painting spot facing south southeast to capture the changing snow and shadow colors under our large burning bushes.

Notice that the shadows display vivid blues at either end of the day, but tend to go grayer in the afternoon. The darkest shadows go hand-in-hand with the most intense sunlight. The color of the shadows is influenced by the color of the light, so as sunset approaches, the shadows take on more red and yellow.

These four color samples were taken from the shadows cast by the farthest left burning bush in each photograph.
These four color samples were taken from the shadows cast
by the farthest left burning bush in each photograph.
The four samples were taken from the non-shadowed snow areas.
The four samples were taken from the non-shadowed snow areas.

It is always fascinating to discover the variations in color warmth and coolness in the shadows throughout the day and the amount of color in the unshadowed areas of snow which the eye tends to perceive as white. Snow is a wonderful subject, a canvas reflecting the changing light and shadows of the day and night. It also provides us with one of the very few instances in which the ground plane can be lighter than the sky.

Please join us on The Artist’s Road for more interesting and informative articles.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

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