For me one of the hardest things I have ever had to paint is snow. I could never get the colour right.
Is it white? Is it blue? How do you paint snow to look soft and cold.
My approach to painting snow is in respect to wildlife but the same principles can be applied to painting landscape and other snowy scenes.
The best approach to painting snow is to carefully observe your reference from the beginning and match your colours correctly.
How to Paint Animals in Snow
- Make sure your blues are not too saturated
- Areas of snow in the light have hints of warmer yellows and reds.
- Use an old bristle brush and a dabbing technique
- Twist the brush in your fingers to add variation to your snow
- Think about the structures underneath the snow and paint around those to give it form
- Glaze shadowy areas in the snow to give it a 3D look
- Use an Airbrush for hazy or soft, fluffy looking snow
- Use a small brush to paint snowflakes on whiskers and fur, think about where it would land naturally.
Painting Snow Covered Fur
As I mentioned this approach could be used to paint any form of snow but I am going to walk you through my process for painting snowy animals.
Making sure to get those soft clumps of snow and loose snowflakes as natural looking as possible.
I will briefly mention my process for painting the animal and go into more detail about my process for painting the snow.
Before I start I should mention the reference for this painting was provide by Michelle Coble an American photographer. Remember if you are painting from other people’s photographs you must ask for permission to use them before you start painting.
Painting the Base
I always start my wildlife paintings with the eyes. I start with a burnt umber wash then begin to draw around the basic structures using black paint. I block in the dark layers of colours then build up to a complete eye with various thin layers of paint.
My previous blog has a complete guide to my process of painting animal eyes.
Next I move on to the nose. This time I start with a thin wash of red mixed with black. Again I draw my basic shapes with black paint and then block in my underlying colour much darker than I want the final outcome to be.
I do this so that I can build up the colours from dark to light. By leaving small gaps between the subsequent layers it can add depth to your painting and make it look more realistic.
Painting the Muzzle
For the muzzle I start by drawing in the outline and dark marks where the whiskers will sit. I then use burnt umber to block in the areas where I want the orange fur to be.
Because most of my tiger will be covered in snow I am only blocking in the parts that are visible. At this stage because I want the paint to be opaque, I am not using any water to thin it down.
As with all my paintings I begin my fur by adding black lines using an angled brush in the direction that I want the fur to go. I then paint on top of this with thin washes of burnt umber mixed with black and white.
I make sure to leave gaps between the brush strokes to leave some of that base colour and the black marks showing through.
For the white sections of the muzzle I start with thin washes of grey paint, this is just black mixed with white.
I also added a little bit of burnt umber to give this initial layer of fur a warmer feel. I will be painting snow on top of this which I want to appear much cooler than the tiger’s face.
I gradually build up the details using a combination of the angle brush and a small detail brush getting lighter and lighter with each layer.
When I am painting fur like this I am always studying my reference photo very closely I want to make sure that I am being as accurate as possible and my brush strokes are following the form of the face.
I am also very careful when I paint the fur, making sure the brush strokes are not uniform and all going in straight lines.
I try to curve the hairs slightly in different directions and leave gaps to show some of the fur underneath giving a more 3D look and the impression of layered fur.
Painting Fur Showing Through Snow
As I have said most of my painting is going to be covered in snow but there are some regions where some of the fur will be showing through.
I decided to create a rough base layer of orange fur that I would eventually paint over and turn into snow.
I did this because I didn’t want any bare canvas showing through in the final painting.
Any parts that I missed when painting the snow would just look like orange fur showing through so it would save me a lot of time in the later stages of the painting.
I always start tigers by blocking in the stipes with black paint then washing over the fur with a mix of burnt umber and black. I then used a round brush to give the impression of fur by painting in rough marks using a mix of burnt umber thinned down with water.
I followed the same technique to block in the chin but I added a slight hint of blue as to grey out the fur in the areas that would eventually become white fur.
Again I start these areas very dark so that I can paint on top of them with much lighter marks to establish layers and add depth to sections of my painting.
Blocking in the Snow
This next part of the painting was a new technique for me, I decided to paint the areas that I wanted the snow to be a very saturated grey blue colour first.
I thought this would allow some of that cold blue colour to show through in the final layers of the painting.
I really messed up doing this and I realised it was a massive waste of time. I spent far too long trying to cover up the blue to make it look whiter like snow.
My plan was to gradually build up layers of grey, gradually getting whiter and whiter until it eventually resembled snow.
The technique did work in the end but I definitely don’t recommend it. I learned a lot about painting snow from this painting and there are a few things that I would do differently if I was to paint it again.
Tips for Painting Snow
Firstly do not start off with a super saturated blue base colour it is much more hassle that it is worth. If I were to paint snow like this again I would start with a mid to light grey colour and maybe just add a few drops of blue to my paint mix to cool it down a bit.
When I was blocking in the snow I used an old bristle brush. The ends had frayed slightly which made it perfect for dabbing the snow to give it a fluffy look.
I made sure to twist the brush in my hands as I painted this meant that each time I put the brush to the canvas it was in a slightly different position and the snow didn’t all look the same.
I also made sure to leave gaps just as I do with fur to let the layers underneath show through slightly to give the painting a more 3D look.
Giving Structure to the Snow
As I mentioned before I added very small amounts of blue to my paint to give it a much colder feel. As I got to the final layers I still had slight mixes of blue and grey, I never used pure white.
It is important to realise that snow is not just smooth masses of white there are lots of dips, bumps hills, channels and structures made by the wind, sun , rain and in this case the movement of the tiger.
It is important when you are painting snow that you think about the structures that it is sat on top of. You want to make sure that the snow is still following the 3D form of the shapes underneath.
This is the reason why I like painting the fur first then painting the snow over the top so that I can visualise exactly how that snow might look over the section of fur that I have just painted.
Details for Realistic Snow
After blocking in snow on the face I had to work back in the details of the fur showing underneath. To do this I used a small detailed brush and the angled brush.
All I did at this stage was use burnt umber mixed with black and applied the paint in the areas where fur was showing through on the reference picture. I wasn’t painting the fur detail just carefully blobbing and smoothing out the paint in the correct areas to give the impression of the colour of fur showing through the snow.
I also used the detailed brush to glaze the shadowy areas of the snow. I used a mix of black blue and burnt umber to create a cold dark grey colour. Then used very thin washed of this to add the shadows.
Adding the shadows on the snow is critical for making it look realistic.
Finishing Touches for the Snow
I neatened up the snow using the small angled brush again just using a dabbing technique. First I added layers of cold icy blue then I used some slightly watered down white paint to add the finishing touches.
I used pure white and watered it down slightly so that it was still bright but not too opaque, this meant some of the colour underneath still showed through and the finished outcome didn’t look pure white.
Painting Snow on the Muzzle
For the snow on the muzzle it was really important to consider the roundness of the cheeks and the location of the whiskers.
I wanted the snow to still show the form of the muzzle and take into account the snow that would stick onto the whiskers and clump together forming little mounds.
I built up the snow detail in exactly the same way as the rest of the face, making sure to vary my brush stroke every single time.
When you start to dab the paintbrush repeatedly it tends to start to leave marks that look exactly the same. By rolling the paintbrush in my fingers slightly to change the orientation of the brush I managed to get more unique looking marks.
Using an Airbrush to Paint Soft Snow
I used an airbrush to add some white over areas of darker fur, this gave the appearance of smaller powdery snowflakes sat on top of the fur. I really recommend using an airbrush if you want to paint soft snow it makes it so much easier.
I continued using the airbrush to glaze some shadowy areas underneath the eyes, chin and nose. I also used it to bring back some of the orange fur near the top of the head.
Some of the black stripes in this area appeared quite blue on my reference photo because of the snow. I used a thin wash of process cyan blue to glaze some colour into the stripes.
Painting the Chin
I followed the same process for the chin as the rest of the fur. I added the shadows for the snow using a glaze of blue and black, then built up the snow using the angled brush and various combinations of blue, black and white paint.
This section of the painting is actually my favourite as I think I managed to capture the form of the chin and managed to layer the snow to give it a 3D look.
Final Snow Details
For the loose strands of fur I used the dagger brush then one of the really important finishing touches was to add small snowflakes using the detail brush.
All I did was dab small blobs of white paint on some of the loose fur strands where I thought it might land and stick to the fur.
For the whiskers I started using the liner brush to add dark brown and black whiskers. I used the liner brush here because the darker whiskers appeared much thicker.
I then went on to use the dagger brush using thinned white paint to add the lighter whiskers. To finish the whiskers I used the detail brush to add the small snowflakes just like I did with the chin and muzzle.
These small details really add a lot to the painting reinforcing the natural look of the snow.
Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you’d like to know more about my process why not check out the full video of this painting being created on Youtube!
Make sure to share your paintings with us by tagging our Instagram page @StudioWildlife_art and let us know if you found this helpful.
Follow our Studio Wildlife Pinterest page to see more examples of wildlife artwork created by some incredible wildlife artists!
Subscribe to the Studio Wildlife Youtube Channel to watch videos of our process.