Painting Snow Scenes

Snowy scenes, by their very nature, should appear to be cold. But to Pennsylvania artist Don Graeb “cold” doesn’t mean lifeless–he finds color and warmth in even the most frigid of scenes. “Winter, of course, is essentially kind of drab and gray,” he admits. “But quite often I’ll be able to work in some color to really bring life into the scene.”

In Another Time, Graeb pulled color into an otherwise dreary scene in several interrelated ways: First, he created what he calls a “bright warmth” in the sky by mixing warm and cool colors. “My goal was to create a ‘day after the big snow’ kind of feeling,” he says. Next, he balanced the scene by repeating the warm color he used in the sky in the foreground. Finally, he repeated the warm and cool juxtaposition in the siding of the aging barn.

Obviously, Graeb is a fan of color, even in a predominately white snow scene. But he also makes it clear that color should be used judiciously–to do otherwise could ruin your painting. “With other subjects, where the surface of the painting has more pigment on it, you can paint things, change your mind, do a little wash out and then go in with darker colors to re-establish contrast,” he says. “When you’re doing a snow painting, you really have to think about the positive/negative areas before you paint and be careful that you don’t destroy a white area that needs to shine through as snow. But if you’re very careful with how you use color, you can spark the painting.”

To model the soft forms on the surface of a “snow blanket,” Graeb paints wet-into-wet. If he’s after strong contrast, he’ll paint directly onto dry paper. Although he likes to alternate paper surfaces, depending on his painting goals, Graeb acknowledges that cold-pressed paper is usually preferable for creating snow scenes because it’s easier to get a soft effect with it.

Graeb paints around the larger white areas in his design, but does use masking fluid for snow on tree branches and other small snowy details. Masking, he cautions, is something that should be used sparingly and cautiously to avoid a too obvious effect. “I’m very careful when I use masking fluid,” he says. “When you first remove mask, you have a hard edge all around that can ruin the naturally soft effect of freshly fallen snow. I really work to soften the hard edge, so the area doesn’t appear to have been masked.”

To create the effect of snow-laden branches in Another Time, Graeb reworked the masked-out area on the tree branches, softening the edges and bringing in form and shadow to create the illusion of piled up clumps of snow.

Ultimately, Graeb says, a painting should reflect the artist’s emotions. To that end, he says trying to find a formula for any subject, including snow, is a big mistake. “The more the artist can get his feelings or his emotions into the painting, the more his audience will relate to it. This is what good art does,” he says. “There’s nothing worse than a formula. Even though the painting might be well done, you lose the excitement.”

A longtime contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine, Patrick Seslar is the author of four art technique books, his most recent being Watercolor Basics: Painting From Photographs (North Light Books).

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