Snow Texture: the making of “Remembering the Chief”

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“Remembering the Chief” – Wallowa Mts. OR – Pastel on MingART, 7.1×4.4″/18×11.1 cm

After I posted this painting of Chief Joseph Mountain, I was asked how I go about painting snow texture. Well, the texture has a lot to do with two factors, in this case: 1) the finely sanded surface of the MingART “Finest” paper, and 2) the ability to lightly, evenly drag a pastel pencil point across that surface.

Of course, between those two factors lie several steps that add realism to the snow. In a nutshell, though, I paint the most colorful parts first, which are the mid-value shadows, and then I work the highlights and darks, alternating between them. Most of the darks on the snowy mountain were done with deep Indigo. Virtually all of the highlights were done using Chinese White on top of the shadows. Texture is achieved by varying the pressure on the pastel pencil when painting the highlights. Most of the time, I’m using very subtle strokes.

Here are all the geeky details.

  1. Lightly (very lightly) lay down the varying hues that make up the sky and snow shadows. I completely ignore all details, focusing on the midrange values only. At this point, I don’t really differentiate between the snow, the clouds and the sky, except where the colors shift.
  2. Smooth the color transitions with finger blending. MingART Finest allows for blending without too much loss of skin! I add a little color where needed, again, paying no attention to the highlights or deep darks. Some of it rubs off, and that’s okay because I want to put down as little pastel as possible an still have some color. I actually rub my fingertip on a soft pastel and paint with my finger rather than applying the pastel directly. In some places, where the sun strikes, I leave the light gray paper showing through the color haze.
  3. Using a deep Indigo pastel pencil, faintly outline the left ridge and the upper shadows. Again, this is all about subtlety. Lay another line down to generally demarcate the middle ridge. Don’t finalize any of these lines.
  4. With a Chinese White pastel pencil, leave little tick marks to show where the uppermost highlights are, and then lightly establish the line of the brightly lit snow slope. I used less pressure to show where the clouds obscure the view.
  5. Using only Chinese White and varying amounts of pressure, establish only the brightest highlights on the upper third of the mountain. Now the drawing is sent and I can start working the details.
  6. Using deep Indigo, paint the exposed rocks and deepest shadows. With an image this small, I literally poke at the area I’m painting, hardly scratching the surface. The tip of a lightly held pastel pencil skidding across the sanded surface is sufficient to represent the rock bands on the upper right. I’m still saving the darkest darks for later, when the whole range of values is clear.
  7. Using the lights tint of Indigo, Ultramarine Blue and Dark Violet (Derwent’s names), I start working the snow highlights within the shadowed areas on the upper part of the mountain. I’m going for luminosity here, so I put warm and cool temperatures next to each other. The sanded paper allows for lots of layering without creating mud, so if I watch my pressure, I can put a warm violet over a cool blue and get a nice mix without blending. I can even paint the negative space between the exposed rocks, showing where the snow drifts and collects.
  8. With medium tints of the same three colors, I make sure the subtleties in the shadows are correct. To make certain shadows more luminous, I’ll add some Spectrum Blue and go over it subtly with a medium tint of Dark Violet to keep it from being too intense.
  9. Going back to Chinese White, I paint the lower highlights. With very delicate, even pressure, I paint the sunlit snowfields in the middle of the mountain, letting the texture of the paper catch just the slightest hint of white. These strokes are painted in the same direction as the slope, so we can see the curvature.
  10. As I do the highlights on the bottom of the mountain, I draw a thin line for the top of that low, backlit ridge, and then paint feathery strokes off of it from right to left to show the spindrift. I set my fingertip on the line and lightly drag it off, from right to left to pull that white into the shadowed area. If it’s too strong, I buff it in the opposite direction, pushing the shadow toward the spindrift. When that’s close enough, I reestablish the sunlit ridge line.
  11. Finish up the darkest darks, and then tweak the values throughout to ensure proper depth.
  12. For reflected light in the uppermost summit dome shadow, I put just a little French Gray in the lightest tint, which gave that area some warmth.
  13. In the middle ground, the shadowed snow is done by painting a middle tint of Ultramarine Blue in patches over a relatively heavier blended layer of Dark Gray (NuPastel) and deep Indigo (Derwent). I then reestablish the tree texture with the deep Indigo pastel pencil.
  14. The foreground dusting of snow is made by painting the moraine with Umber blended on top of deep Indigo, and then dragging a light tint of Indigo over it in the direction of the slope. The paper texture does the work.

Hope it explains what I did this time around. How do you do snow texture? I’d love to hear about it.

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