Snow Verbs and Mediums
Are you familiar with Claude Monet’s color-filled paintings of his neighbor’s haystacks covered in snow? Or his famous snow scene with a fence titled The Magpie? Studying the works of art by painters famous for their renditions of snow opens a world of art history, theory, technique, and enjoyment. For thousands of years, thousands of artists around the globe have been inspired by snow to create works of art. Art books and the internet are filled with innumerable examples. My own favorites tend to be the paintings of the French and American Impressionists and some of their contemporaries who were influenced and inspired by their snowy observations! In France, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Claude Monet created incredible snow paintings. Claude Monet produced over 140 amazing snowy scenes! Here in the United States, Willard Metcalf, Aldo Hibbard, John Carlson, and Childe Hassam, who painted the gorgeous Boston Commons at Twilight, all became well-known for snow scenes. My absolute favorite snow painter of all-time is Walter Launt Palmer, who painted ethereal snowscapes of contrasting warm and cool colors that seem to shimmer in the winter landscape. The best way to learn to draw or paint snow is by studying it in nature!
Heavy or fluffy? Wet or dry? Fast falling or gently drifting? Silvery veils or thick curtains? Snow has so many differing characteristics! Most people simply enjoy snow–or loathe it! For the artists among us, it's the activity of painting snow (instead of skiing or sledding in it) that challenges us. What is the snow DOING? We must figure out how to paint snow, not as a NOUN but as a VERB! January is the month we have come to expect snow. It reverberates in our childhood memories. It concerns us when we check the weather reports. Sometimes it cancels our schedules and provides a restful afternoon with a great book and a cup of tea. Whatever we think of it in our daily lives, snow is a wonderful winter muse for artists!
But “snow” as a verb? Actually, painting subjects as “verbs” is a method used by many artists! We learn not to think only about what the subject looks like, but what it's doing. Is it hanging? Sitting? Blowing? Grasping? Reflecting? Clumping? Sparkling? Drifting? Sticking? When painting snow (or any other subject), we must determine its “state of action or being” as a verb. Is it draping? Disappearing? Obliterating? “And,” exulted my art teacher, “once you figure out what the snow is doing, you will know how to paint it!”
It’s true. Snow is frozen water, with different crystalline structures, different properties and different moods. In order to paint snow, one must identify not only what the snow is doing, but also what kind of light is reflecting from it (bright noonday light, filtered forest light, twilight, etc.) and what color the snow is reflecting (pinkish highlights, deep blue shadows, violet mounds, etc.) Effets de neige, the effects of snow, is a challenging lifetime art study.
All the snow painters whose work I most admire chose the medium of oil paint, because in their time periods (1800s and early 1900s), oil was considered to be the only serious artistic medium. Watercolor and graphite were for sketches and studies only. But by the 1950s, the center of the art world had not only moved from Paris to New York City, but also watercolor, graphite, and other mediums were accepted as “finished art.” Artists today have the freedom to match the characteristics of their medium to the verbs of their subjects!
Harvey’s Creek Along Route 29 above West Nanticoke was painted in watercolor, not only to provide the hues in the sunlight and cool shadow contrasts, but also the fluid motion of the creek and the sifting textures in the trees. The snow was sparkling, sticking, occasionally melting.
The Lehman Tree was drawn in the medium of graphite. The pointed pencils allow the careful definition of the details in the heavy snow that draped on evergreen branches, outlining the lights and darks. Color was unnecessary for the composition but tonal values were essential.
Pioneer Avenue After the Storm is a small study, only 7x8 inches, painted as practice for a planned larger painting of the same subject. Oil was chosen to depict the thick, heavy snow–clumping, pushing downward on the tree branches, blocking, creating almost an impenetrable wall of snow. In each artwork, the medium was chosen to glorify the snow’s verbs!
What are your favorite verbs to describe snow? My favorite verbs are flexible: whatever is necessary to describe what the snow is doing. My husband's favorite snow verb is “disappearing!”
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 publication of InSide the Back Mountain.