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).
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.
|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.
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–John and Ann