Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Frosted Fields and Snowy Delights

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine who's recently taken up pastel painting for the first time asked me about how to handle snow. Here in North Texas snow is a rare event. I've lived all my life in Texas, and I've only seen it snow a half-dozen times, and only 3 or 4 of those times would count as real snow (the rest being mostly slush.) Well, miracles do happen and as luck would have it, we had a little bit of snow last week. Some parts had six inches or more, which is a major snow event here, but where I live we only had a couple of inches. It rained all night and into mid-morning, and then finally turned to sleet and then snow around lunch time. It took a couple of hours to start sticking, but late that afternoon I headed out to do a bit of sketching and snap some reference photos. Most of the afternoon was completely gray and overcast, but shortly before sunset the cloud cover broke and we had a brilliant display that night.

This is a scene along Malloy Bridge Road just out of Seagoville, TX. I had seen these freshly plowed fields a few days before and thought I might return to paint the rich, black soil, but today the top soil had a light frosting of snow. The clouds and dramatic light breaking through almost made the world look like it was turned upside down. I painted this scene rather quickly, with loose brush strokes and a bit more paint than I've been using lately.

The first thing to know about snow is it isn't white. I know to some of you I'm stating the obvious, but snow (like anything that appears to be white) is very reflective and bounces back the colors around it. As I gazed at the snow covered field, I saw bits of bluish white, very light pinks and purples, and some parts that were warmer, even approaching a light tint of yellow. The trick is to balance all of these tints with enough contrast to make them appear to be white. I first learned about painting whites by putting a roll of toilet tissue in a colored box covered in different colors of construction paper. With a spotlight on the roll of tissue, the reflected colors are easy to spot. It's a little more difficult out in the open in a field, but the different colors are still there. Monet painted a series of snow covered fields and haystacks that have wonderful variations in light tints, and I highly recommend studying his works. The other part of making snow stand out is to balance all of those light tints with contrasting darks. The line of trees in the distance and the muddy water holes in the foreground make the snow appear lighter to the eye, and the deep blues and reds in the sky add midtones to round out the values. The object doesn't provide the color, the light does, and if you judge your values well you can use just about any color you want. It's all about balance.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for more snow this year, but it's getting back into the fifties this week so there's not much chance of it here. Maybe you'll have better luck!

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