The Colors of Snow

The Carriage-The Road to Honfleur Under Snow, by Claude Monet, 1867. Dea/A. Dagli Orti/De Agostino Picture Library/Getty Images

As for all things, there are multiple ways to paint snow. As the artist you have many decisions to make.  First you have to decide what your intent is and what mood you want to convey. Are your colors going to be realistic or imagined?  Then you have to pay attention to the light - how high in the sky is it, what time of day is it, what is the weather? These factors will help dictate colors and paint application and many of the other artistic decisions you must make, because despite what many might think, snow is not just white.

 Use a gray viewfinder, such as a ViewCatcher from the Color Wheel Company, to help isolate the colors in the snow. You can also make your own viewfinder out of an old slide frame or two corners of gray mat board. You will be amazed to see how isolating parts of the scene will help you discern the distinct hue of what generally appears white.

Snow is made up of tiny ice crystals that reflect what is around it. Flat snow on the surface in direct sunlight looks white because it is reflecting back all the light of the visible spectrum, creating white. As snow gets deeper, it acts like water and absorbs more of the red and yellow light, reflecting back more blue light. Read the article Painting Water, to read more about the colors of water. Snow may also appear somewhat greenish or a warm blue due to its physical composition. Read more about snow and ice and what causes blue color in scientific terms here.

If the sky is blue, snow that is not directly in the sun will have a bluish cast. If the sky is gray, the snow will look gray. The snow will also have reflections in the shadows, as different planes catch the light differently. The highlights and ridges that catch the sunlight will have warm tones, the shadows will have blue and purple tones.

Shadows created by a form, such as a tree, or ridges in the snow itself, are blue because the sun is no longer hitting a plane directly, so only a portion of the light is reflected back, which is the light in the blue range of the visible spectrum. For a concise explanation of why shadows are blue read this.

The colors I use to paint snow are: titanium white, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow light, burnt sienna, and burnt umber.  I don't use black because that tends to deaden the look of the snow. A richer dark shadow color can be made with ultramarine blue mixed with burnt umber. You can also get warmer tones by using cerulean blue.  Some artists use phthalocyanine blue, but keep in mind that this pigment is very strong and you only need to use a little bit of it. A tiny speck of orange added to white highlights will give the highlights a warm tone and help create contrast with the blue of the shadows. Read The Temperature of Blue for more about warm and cool blues.

As with anything, your own observation is key to a successful and unique painting.

More reading:

See Marion Boddy-Evans' the article, Best Ground Color for Painting Snow? for tips on choosing the ground color for a snow scene.

See Doug Swinton's article 10 Tips on Painting Realistic Snow.

For images of snow scenes in art showing how different artists from different time periods and cultures have tackled the subject, see the article, 15 of the Best Snow Scenes in Art.