Painting winter


Dear Artist,

Here on the West Coast, the rain falls in a face-slap of plump, heavy drops. In pictures, though, winter is a silent, sensual swoosh of purple and cream with moody golden-hour skies and blobs of highlight dancing between long shadows. Here are a few ideas:


“First Snow in Autumn”
oil on panel
by Tom Thomson (1877-1917)

Painting snow is the best way to practice the art of looking. Forget about what you think you know about the white stuff and try to see what’s really there. Throw yourself into mastering the art of warm and cool associations.

Snow almost never need be white. Warm when it recedes, purple as a middle ground and dark as can be at the fore — see how deeply you can exaggerate its contrasts.

Where are the patterns? Tree wells, sky pockets, sunbeams; meltwater, snowdust, sleet sharps; glacier tracks and shimmering tarns. And what colour are they?

Snow is really the story of what is being reflected. If the sky is dark, so will be the large, reflective patches of snow. If the snow is clinging to the side of a mountain scree, it might be reflecting a low cool sun or another bright peak. If the snow is blanketing a pasture or wood, perhaps the red jacket of a hiker or the side of a red barn is spreading pink.


“Winter Afternoon” 1914
oil on canvas, 25 x 32 inches
by A. Y. Jackson (1882-1974)

The highest highlight is whiter than white and never chalky from the tube. Mixed ever so slightly with a touch of Cadmium orange or yellow, it will dance against all those cool greys and blues.

By taking your sky down a notch in value, you punch up your snow. All your design can come from this contrast, especially when you add warm against cool and vibrate with daring side-by-sides — what Dad called “equal intensity lay-bys.”

Have you tried a glaze? Mix a spot of phthalo blue with water and medium and pull it across the whole picture with a rag or fan brush. Coming to light is how you go back in, here and there, with true warms. Don’t forget to let your strokes be characteristic of the thing you’re painting — snow.

All of this is really an opportunity to be graphic.

Finally, if all else fails, work lean to fat. Snow is fat and sensual; handling it this way also keeps your whites from getting muddy and invites impasto play.


“The Magpie” 1868–69
oil on canvas, 35 × 51 inches
by Claude Monet (1840-1926)



PS: “After you’ve painted a couple of thousand paintings, then you can begin.” (Carl Rungius)

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It deals Celestial Vail

To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
A Summer’s empty Room –
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them –

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen –
Then stills its Artisans – like Ghosts –
Denying they have been
(Emily Dickinson, It Sifts From Leaden Sieves, 1862)


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“As our eyes grow accustomed to sight, they armour themselves against wonder.” (Leonard Cohen)



  1. Sara, this epistle, in my estimation, is the best chapter you have written… in text, in poetry and in content. You truly captured ART this time…. bravo. From a lonely voice on the plains of west Texas and New Mexico.

  2. Thank you for this lovely ode to snow! You make it sound so inviting to paint plein air to those of us who are weather wimps……!! I could apply these observations to white foam on ocean waves, white fabric or cloud formations …. #nosnowinsunnysandiego !!!! Happy Holidays! (-:

  3. Oh yes, this letter is truly magnificent in terms of keen and deep observations, creatively, lyrically and lushly expressed. Yes, a masterful letter. And what an amazing poem! Thank you!!! Have a beautiful day Sara. I read all of your father’s letters and felt a deep kinship and friendship. You’re offering that to us now. Thank you so much for enriching our lives. If you’re in our area, you have a place to stay :–)

  4. Yes, what colour is it? – Truly at first it all seems cool white but if we open our eyes wide as well as squint to get the most out of the observations we may notice more – or perhaps open the way to imagine and wonder. Taking pictures helps compose and connect but it is only in real light that one finds the subtle tones to play on. Thank you Sara for the reminding us what to look for including the patterns that can be laid down with lushes thick paint. Can’t wait to squeeze out more….My latest Plein Air paintings are done in the snow and I am happy to share them with you – Please see The Best of the Season to all!

  5. Thank you so much, Sara! A show coming up wants us to paint the color of winter! Perfect instructions! One of the best columns you have written.

  6. Shellee Cunnington on

    A wonderful creation, thank you Sara!
    The snow shadows and it’s glisten have always enchanted me.
    Such fun to think about painting snow and your painting instruction is clear and much appreciated.

    Bright spirits to you and everyone,

  7. This morning I have been browsing the watercolorists complete guide to color by Tom Hill. This is new theory to me and your articles this morning reinforced the things that he was saying and demonstrating in that book. I am delighted to read it. And I am thrilled to read emily‘s wonderful poem. Thank you so much for putting these works of art in Juxtaposition for me.

  8. I am also on the West coast , but in sunny South Africa. I’ve never seen snow in my entire life and a white Christmas is def on my bucket list , but I have done snow landscapes as I think it looks ….( as seen on pictures , off course ! ). Lovely letter , great poetry. Thanks.

  9. Sara, when I read the first paragraph of your posts I always guess, is it Sara or is it Robert? This time I guessed Robert. Not that you shouldn’t be you but please take that as a compliment. Be well.

  10. I loved your article today and so true about snow reflecting all the colours around it. I also loved the inclusion of the poem . Thank you for this very interesting and informative letter. From snowy Ontario.

  11. Sara;
    I agree with many comments a wonderful treatise on painting snow and terrific poem to go along with it You really gave some wonderful advice and asked some great questions at the same time.


  12. Last night’s snowfall glittered with diamond chards in the street lamplight as I climbed the steps after my swim. So many different colours. I hated to disturb it as I shovelled the walkways. My favourite part of painting snow is the shapes of light against dark. Always fascinating. Making it dance with contrasts of warm and cool then adding random touches of resist colours and white for the sparkle. So fun.

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