Today’s reader question comes from an artist who wants to know how to draw snow with colored pencils. Here’s her question.
I am a student of John Middick’s Sharpened Artist Course. I have a snow winter scene project, and would like to know how to create snow with colored pencils. I’ll be using Polychromos and Luminance pencils.
How to Draw Snow with Colored Pencils
Creating snow with colored pencils is pretty much the same as creating anything else. It often looks more scary because of all that white!
So the key is to stop thinking of it as snow, and look instead at the shapes, and at the pattern of light and dark. In other words, think of it as an abstract!
But before you start drawing snow, there’s one important thing to consider.
Because snow is white, it’s very reflective. That means lighting makes a huge impact on the colors you see in snow. Let’s look at four examples.
White Snow in Four Different Lighting Situations
The first example is what most of us think of when we think of snow. White snow on a sunny day. You’d expect to use a lot of white to draw this scene, wouldn’t you? The truth may surprise you, but more on that in a minute.
Here’s the same scene (or a portion of it) photographed on a cloudy day. It’s actually still snowing in this photo. The snow still looks white, but where are the bright highlights and clear shadows? You see no highlights because clouds and falling snow veil the light.
Without highlights, the shadows are also less dramatic in this scene than in the previous scene. Defused light decreases the difference between the lightest light values and the darkest dark values.
Okay. Those are two “normal” lighting situations.
What about this one?
I took this photo in bright sunlight, but the sun was starting to set. Since I was shooting toward the sun, the snow is back lighted, which gives it an entirely different look.
And the snow also picks up the golden colors of the setting sun. No white to speak of here!
Finally, here’s the same location photographed at night, lighted only by street lights. Very golden. That’s one of the things that appeals to me about this scene.
The street lights have since been changed to LEDs, so the snow no longer looks yellow like this at night. It looks bluer.
But you get the idea. The first thing you need to do when drawing snow is to really look at the colors in your reference photo.
And the first question you need to ask is not “How do I draw snow?” The first question is “how do I draw the colors in the snow I’m looking at?”
Check Your Colors
I mentioned above that even in the “normal” snow picture, there probably wasn’t much white. Here’s what I mean.
I used a photo editor (GIMP) to select what looked to me like the lightest value in the image; the snow on the flat surface. The color picker doesn’t show white. It shows a light gray. You can see the difference between that color and true white by comparing the box immediately above the HELP button with the smaller white box above the CANCEL button. They’re not very close at all!
So I chose another very light value in the same scene. It was a little bit lighter, but still clearly gray.
Take a close look at your reference photo. I’m guessing you’ll see that there really isn’t that much white involved in drawing snow. The shadows aren’t white, and often the snow isn’t true white either.
If you don’t trust your eyes, the color picker in a photo editor can be a great help. Match your pencils with the colors in the color picker.
But you will have to trust your color picker, and that can be difficult!
Apply Your Colors
Once you’ve chosen the colors, go back to looking at your subject as an abstract. Mask the drawing and reference photo to show just a small area if that helps. Draw each shape within that small area as accurately as possible, matching colors and values.
When you finish one area, move to the next. Apply color smoothly to avoid leaving pencil strokes, and use light pressure and lots of layers to build color and develop the values.
If you’re using traditional paper, keep your pencils sharp. If you’re using a sanded paper, that’s not as important.
When you’ve finished each section, remove the mask and adjust colors and values as needed.
Learning How to Draw Snow doesn’t Need to be Difficult
The most important thing to remember is to study your reference photo and draw what you see. Get past the idea that you “know what snow looks like” so you don’t need a reference photo.
Now that I think about it, that is probably the most difficult part of the process. It’s so easy to get into the habit of thinking you know what something looks like that you could draw it with your eyes closed. Especially something you’ve seen a lot.
You probably can draw a decent snow scene that way, but it will probably be quite generic in nature. It also won’t be as detailed and realistic as what you’d draw when you use a reference photo or draw from life.
So identify the shapes, values, and colors in your reference photo, then apply basic drawing principles, and your snow scene will turn out great!