If you want to paint a snowy landscape, you might not immediately think to use watercolors as your medium. That’s because you can’t add pure white watercolor paint to your paper like you can with more opaque paint, like oil or gouache. Instead, you have to learn how to use a rainbow of colors, as well as the white of your paper, to create the illusion of snow. It sounds a bit tricky, but if you trust the process, you can achieve a breathtaking result. Follow this guide to learn how to successfully paint watercolor snow.
How to Paint Watercolor Snow
While snow is white, you will use a few different—and unexpected—colors to illustrate it in watercolor. To paint this particular picture, you will need four colors of watercolor paint: yellow ochre, burnt umber, quinacridone magenta, and ultramarine blue. However, the brand and type of watercolor are up to you—so use what you like!
In addition, you will need:
- Watercolor paper
- A variety of watercolor brushes
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Step 1: Create a Sketch
Before picking up your paintbrush, it’s helpful to create a rough sketch of your composition. This is especially helpful when painting snow in watercolor, since you will need to know exactly where to leave white space, or areas without paint.
Start with a clear reference image. While you don’t have to replicate the image detail for detail, it can help you establish where to place each component. Overall, keep the sketch simple, marking the most prominent features, like the horizon, trees, and large rocks. But don’t feel too tied to your reference photo. If you feel like you need to balance out your painting, you have full artistic license to add and remove elements until you’re satisfied with the overall composition.
Finally, you may also find it helpful to lightly shade in what will be the darkest areas of the painting, showing exactly where the snow will and will not be. This will act as a guide once you’re ready to add paint.
Step 2: Add First Wash of Cool Colors
Snow is a tough subject for a watercolor painting because it is white. But because the color white actually includes all of the other colors in the rainbow, you can effectively paint watercolor snow with a palette of other colors.
For example, because the snow reflects the sky, snow can often incorporate a lot of blue, particularly where the shadows fall. So, the first step is to look at your reference photo and identify where the shadows fall, and then use a clean, wet brush to dampen just those areas of the paper. Then, pick up some blue paint with your brush, and add it to just those wet areas.
However, especially when the sun sets, the sky can produce a wide variety of colors beyond blue. Use that to your advantage and add some purple or magenta to add depth and visual interest to the composition.
Finally, add just a bit of yellow to the areas where the shadows transition into the brighter areas. It may seem counterintuitive—snow isn’t meant to be yellow, after all—but it will all come together in the end.
Pro tip: Before the first layer of paint dries, sprinkle just a little salt in the foreground. The salt naturally pushes the watercolor pigment away, creating tiny little sparkles—a perfect representation of snow.
Step 3: Incorporate Warm Colors
With the cool colors of the snow on your page, you can move on to the warm colors of surrounding elements, like trees, stumps, and rocks. Start with your lightest color paint and work your way to the darkest.
In this example, begin with a yellow hue and use it to create the foundation of the stumps and trees. Then layer on a darker burnt umber, using very pigmented paint—aim for only about 10% water. To create the look of bark on trees, try using a dry brushing technique, allowing your brush to sort of stumble across the page in a rough, organic manner.
Step 4: Highlight the Darkest Darks and Lightest Lights
In this final step, you will highlight the darkest darks and the lightest lights of the composition. To create that dark tone, mix ultramarine with burnt umber to create a near-black color. Load your brush with the pigment, and then stumble it across the page where you want the darkest shadows to appear. In this example, focus on the tree in the middle of the page.
To make sure it looks like the snow is resting on the wood, sweep a very diluted blue across the snowy areas in a curved motion. Then use a clean, wet brush to soften the edges of those strokes.
Step 5: Add Final Details
At this point, you could call your composition finished, but there are a few final details you can add to make it just a little more believable. For example, in areas where the snow is slightly melted—where the ground might be visible—you can add a few blades of dead grass.
In this example image, there is also a fence in the background, so use a thin brush to add the fine lines of the fence wire stretching across the background.
Create a Winter Wonderland
Painting snow in watercolor is an enjoyable challenge for beginners and experts alike. While snow is technically white, accurately representing it with watercolor paints requires many different colors and techniques. In the end, the majority of your paper won’t be white—but you will still be left with a beautiful and realistic painting of watercolor snow.
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