How to Paint Sunlit Snow

Large snowstorms give us opportunities to study the unique light, colors and shadows that only snow cover provides. Painting snow presents many challenges, especially to plein air painters — the least of which is the frigid air outdoors.

The primary difficulty is the intense light reflected by the snow. This causes us to squint down and, in doing so, we can darken the entire scene before us. 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 snow values incorrectly, but we can also get the wrong color temperature of the shadows.

Additionally, the brightness of sunlit snow can throw off our reading of its color temperature. It can be easy to envision the snow as being pure white, but it generally 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 on the surface and influence the snow’s color.

Painting Snow, Explained

The best approach when painting snow is to make careful observations and comparisons from the outset in order to get the color down correctly. Likewise, always try to 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 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. Thus, as sunset approaches, the shadows take on more red and yellow.

These four color samples, above, were taken from the shadows cast by the farthest left burning bush in each photograph.

And the above four samples were taken from the non-shadowed snow areas.

What’s always fascinating to discover is the variations in color warmth and coolness in the shadows throughout the day, as well as 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.