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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Inner Vision: “Rediscovery”

Inner Vision: “Rediscovery”

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“Rediscovery” – Acrylic on canvas/linen, 25.6×19.7″/65x50cm

“Rediscovery” – Acrylic on canvas/linen
25.6×19.7″/65x50cm

Your great-grandfather had told of how our ancestors had wandered the great southern mountains whose summits gleamed with snow even in the summer. Unlike most people, you and I did not laugh at the old man.

The night before he died, he gave you his favorite book. He called it history. Everyone else called it hogwash.

In the weeks that followed the old man’s passing, we studied the book assiduously. Every page spoke of amazing people, their journeys, their sorrows and joys. Some of the tales we recognized from your great-grandfather’s telling.

In the very center of the book, we found the map he had hidden between the pages. The parchment was yellowed and frayed, but the markings were readable in good light. They showed our village, the southern road out of town, and six or seven routes through the mountains. Beyond that, it was a bit sketchy.

No one had ventured into the southern mountains for as long as anyone could remember. The reasons given were unconvincing to us. Too barren, they said, trackless and treacherous. There was no food or game and the water was probably poisoned. We knew all the answers.

By dawn the next day, we were long gone. We had told no one; what would be the point? A week later, we sent my father’s faithful horse back home and continued onward, following the long-disused track that led beyond the foothills.

It was our turn.

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These imaginary scenes (my “inner visions”) are getting clearer. I’m refining the process as I go. Further down, you can see the original rough sketch and get all the geeky details about how this painting came together.

Process:

I put an 18×24″ sheet of white paper up on the board and drew whatever came into my head. Once I’d captured a basic idea that I liked, I laid another sheet over the first to trace and refine the drawing. I spent quite a bit of time on the refinements, but when I was done, I decided I preferred the original unrefined sketch (below).

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Then I did some heavy shading with a soft pencil on the backside of the original sketch, following the lines of the drawing. After taping the sketch to the canvas, I drew over it with a pen, pressing the graphite on the back onto the canvas, kind of like using carbon paper. The pen’s colored ink helps me see which lines I haven’t traced yet. The end result is a thin outline of the main shapes on the canvas. I used a harder pencil directly on the canvas for the final outlines. I kept it loose and sketchy as much as possible.

Mixing Dioxazine Purple, Cobalt Blue, and Raw Umber in first more blue-weighted proportions and then more umber and purple-weighted proportions, I very roughly painted in the basic shapes from back to front. The result was rather heavy and dark, but I expected that since acrylic always dries darker. The important thing was that I had some subtle color variations, the proper cold/warm ratio from the background to the foreground, and some nice textures.

I wanted to “knock back” the stuff in the distance, so I lightly dipped a bristly old brush into some white primer and started scumbling a thin, semi-opaque layer over the far distance area. Whoa! With the very first strokes, I put down WAY more than I intended, but…I LIKED IT! I’ve always liked the look of new snow on bare rock with new snow, and this looked like that, so I went for it, scumbling as fast and loosely as I could. Improvised snowfields and avalanche chutes materialized as I painted.

Once I had the basic values and atmosphere set, I went over everything with Titanium White. In fact, for the entire second session, I painted with nothing but white. I had all kinds of fun playing off the textures, refining the snowfields, defining cliffs, crags and boulders, and adding mist and swirling snow. In the last session, I finished the snow and then improvised the design of the two apparent “openings” on the left and right. Again, I used only white to bring out the shapes.

Once that was done, some of the foreground rocks still needed some stronger definition, so made a watery mix of my original underpainting colors and fixed a few edges. Finally, I added the two figures (you saw those, did you?), letting them dry completely before adding more white to put them in proper context. I also added a bit of white to the darker rocks that had dried too dark again.

So there you have all the technical details for this painting. Thanks for reading! If you have questions, let me know in the comments. I’ll answer as many as I can!