Snow Camp Update–The Color of Snow

Nature give me the gift of a Snow Day yesterday, and I used it to make improvements to my Snow Camp paintings. The paint was still malleable–a benefit usually denied to me because of my work schedule.

I am leading off with a close up of the first painting to help you detect the opalescent color of the snow. One of the Big Insights of the weekend was Stape’s insistance that we portray the ineffable quality of the color of snow. (“Ineffable” = incapable of being described in words.) After struggling with the concept, I would like to suggest that snow is also incapable of being depicted with paint.

But there is some science behind Stape’s opalescent idea. White, I am told, contains all colors, and thus reflects all colors back to our eyes. So Stape’s method does make sense. He asked us to lay down very pale shades of the three pure primary colors (red, blue, yellow) next to each other. The result should be a vibration of color that would come close to the true color of snow. This Big Insight was revealed to us on Day Two. I applied it to my painting of that day, but the result was a little disappointing. The snow just looked lumpy. Yesterday, however, I worked it over, lightening the colors and blending them slightly– without mixing them together (mixing would have meant death to vibrancy, as the mix would have produced gray). (Why mixing three primary colors does not produce white instead of gray is one of those mysteries like time being a fourth dimension–which I take on faith.) Here is the painting in its entirety, Day Two version against yesterday’s version:

I can’t really see it here either. You may have to trust me when I say that, in person, the effect is worth having. Here’s another closeup:

I tinkered with some other features of this painting while I was at it–of course.

The Day Three painting also had an issue with the color of snow. I mentioned yesterday–no, that was Tuesday (yesterday was the day when time stood still)–about the sun lighting up the vertical planes, which had the effect of showing the horizontal surface as if in a bit of a shadow. To appreciate the enormity of my observation, you have to have read John Carlson’s book on painting landscapes. His famous analysis holds that the sky is the lightest element (barring snow) in a painting because it is the source of light; the next lightest surface is the horizontal surface because the light from the sky hits it directly; the darkest areas are the verticals (they get the most indirect light) and in between light and dark are the slopes. All rules have exceptions, of course, and when the sun lies low in the sky, it will override the above scheme to make the lightest surface that which it hits most directly–verticals! What fun!

So here is the before and after:

Perhaps you need a close up?

The puzzlement for me was HOW to show the brightest white of the snow when all those vertical planes were facing away for me. Answer: Backlight. Cheat.

As long as we are on the subject of lit vertical elements, here is one of my early paintings which a few years ago won a place in the New England Biennial exhibit at the NH Institute of Art.

When I look back at my previous works, I am sometimes awed by the fact that I was able to produce some good paintings before I knew as much as I now know, or now think I know. Maybe knowing stuff is not the key. But knowing more about painting snow is for sure going to change my style vis a vis snow. Naivete begone! Now, what am I to do with all those old paintings of snow in shades of gray or blue?

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