William H. Hays lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont. Along with painting in watercolors and oils, he is an accomplished print maker whose linocut prints can be seen in galleries in the northeastern US and in Maritime Canada.

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"Making Snow Sparkle"
How to layer watercolor to make snow look bright white

by William H. Hays

The Artist's Magazine, February 1992

Living in Alaska and Vermont, it was inevitable that I would learn to paint snow. As I tried to capture its sparkle in watercolor, I quickly learned that snow isn't actually white at all. It's rich with reflected light and shadow, and it has shape and depth. The white of the paper is important for capturing its brilliance, but flat white alone won't do.

Snow, except for the large drifts, follows the shape of the land. So I draw the landscape in pencil first. When I paint snow over it, every dip, swell, slope and rocky prominence of the ground will be important.

Throughout the painting I try to feel and understand the flow of a stream or river from the bottom up. What happens below the surface creates the reflective qualities of the surface and the refractive qualities of the water itself. Which brings us to color.

Paper Shadows, watercolor painting by William Hays

"Paper Shadows" Watercolor by William H. Hays
Bare paper just looks like holes in a highly shadowed snow scene.
So to shape the landscape, I underpaint the snow with very light washes of
primary colors. Although barely perceptible in this
reproduction of "Paper Shadows" (30" x 22"),
the primaries add life and shape to the cover of snow.

Next, I do an underpainting to give life to the snow through color. A colorless, flat expanse of snow can actually halt the viewer's eye, but even the most subtle underpainting provides movement through the work. Fortunately, underpaintings isn't laborious. All you need are the three primary colors: I use cobalt blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow. I dilute them to a light tint and apply them with a fairly dry brush. Holding the brush parallel to the paper, I move it quickly along the surface in short strokes, heading in all directions and allowing the paper to pick up paint where it will. When I'm finished, small flecks of white paper show through the strokes in places for a sparkle effect.

For sunlit snow, this is all you need to do. Shadows, however, require far more attention, since they give the entire winter scene a feeling of depth and solidity. For shadows in snow, I primarily use pure cobalt blue, or cobalt in combination with yellow ochre or alizarin crimson. Whichever I choose I use for shadows throughout the work. I may adjust the value, but never the color.

Color alone, however, won't define form. You'll also need to pay attention to edges, where they are and aren't. If you look at snow when the sun is low, you'll see that each form has both a hard edge and a soft edge. The soft edge defines volume, while the hard edge defines the contour of the shape. (In a tree, for instance, soft edges define the roundness of the trunk, while a hard edge appears where the tree ends and space begins.)

I paint hard and soft edges all at once. First, I fill my brush with the shadow color I've chosen, then I pull it through a section of snow. One side of the brushstroke will become the form's hard edge. Now, as quickly as possible, I add water to the other side of the brushstroke (the soft edge), and pull the water away. I continue with this process - adding water and pulling it from the dark area to paint - until there's no trace of pigment at the clearest end of the wash, where the shadow fades into light.

Once I've painted all the shadow shapes, I deepen them with washes to create even more depth. If this covers the underpainting too much, I go back in and revive those hues with additional light touches, sometimes adding turquoise or violet hues.

By now, I've applied as many as four or five washes to the shadow areas of the snow. When I step back, I'm always pleased to see how white the sunlit snow appears. The underpainting colors look subtle against the far darker, shadowed areas, but they add movement and shape in the painting.

With the snow finished, I paint in the miscellaneous details of the scene: twigs, saplings, rocks, stalks of grain and other objects poking through the snow. These additions, no matter how small, give that final touch of realism to the painting.

Copyright 1992, William H. Hays

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