How to paint snow

It’s white, right?

Great – I’m done here, heading home.

But no. Examine snow, and you’ll see blues, pinks, greys, purples, and even yellows, oranges, and reds. White, sure, yes, but that only typically makes up a small percentage of an overall snowy landscape.

When I stare at snow before beginning a painting, my brain explodes a little. I wonder, as I do 100% of the time before I’ve started, if this will be the one I can’t finish. Snow is complex! Its frozen patterns mimic waves. It holds shadows in often barely discernible patterns. It’s soft and fluffy looking, but…paint is not.

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First draft of a recent 8″x10″ commission. I laid down the patterns of the snow and the colors until they looked just about right, to fill in more later (next picture).

Before painting snow, I have a little pep talk with myself. I recommend these kinds of pep talks for any aspect of life that at first seems impossible or anxiety-inducing. It goes something like, “You’ve got this, self. Think: confidence! Enjoy it. Put your whole self into it. Keep moving, keep trying, don’t hold on too hard – don’t clench. Be in it. Play.”

Then I set to mixing colors, using the photo I’m working from as a guide.

I lay down a foundation of the dominant color. Maybe it’s a blue shadow tinged with red and a little black to add depth; maybe it’s a lighter, sky color blue mixed with some white to soften it. Often, the color I initially put on the canvas isn’t right at all. I add to my existing mix, or create an entirely new mix and try again until it looks right to me. 

Ideally I get to keep working while the first layer of paint is still fresh, although acrylics dry fast. I add shadows with darker colors – deeper blues, purples, and even black. I create gradations with the colors by lightening up a little here or darkening the edges, starting to blend the snow. Finally, the light – there’s always light, usually dramatic and scary to paint because, what if it’s wrong? I go bold: I load my brush up with pre-mixed white, yellow, orange, or pink. I streak, dot, or schmear the paint across the canvas.


Completed commission. I was thrilled with how the snow turned out – it felt true, to me, to this time of year in Alaska and the casual beauty we have right outside our door.

I resume breathing, and take a step back from the canvas. I examine. I unfocus and refocus my eyes. Sometimes I use my phone to look at the picture through the camera lense. Oddly – I can’t explain why this is – doing that helps me see the totality of the painting in a different way. I can more readily pick out if colors or shapes are off, and adjust accordingly.

I keep painting and layering onto the snow, again with the patterning of streaks, dots, and schmear (yes, like cream cheese – there’s no other word that quite fits) until the painting looks right. 

Snow is one of the most difficult things to paint, and also the most thrilling to get right. 

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