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How to create a watercolour snow painting

Watercolour snow painting
(Image credit: Robert Brindley)

Welcome to our guide to creating a watercolour snow painting. Though this guide talks you through creating a snow scene using a simplified colour palette, many of the principles can be applied to a variety of scenes. 

The fluidity, transparency and immediacy of watercolour allows the artist to interpret a wide variety of subject matter. Although challenging, especially for beginners, watercolours can be simplified by adopting a limited palette and choosing a subject with good 'tonal contrast'.

In the following snow scene demonstration, Robert Brindley followed the above criteria and worked from photographic reference, in conjunction with a 'plein air' oil painting. Working from a sketch – or even a painting in the final stages – helps to eliminate the often overwhelming detail in a photograph.

Want more tips? See our watercolour techniques guide, and for more general advice, head over to our roundup of how to draw tutorials. Or read on for Brindley's expert tutorial.

Create a watercolour snow painting

01. Draw and mask

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

Using a 2B pencil, I drew out just enough of the image to enable me to apply the initial loose wet-into-wet colour washes accurately. The predominant areas of sunlit snow, together with smaller highlights, were then preserved with masking fluid using an old No. 2 Pro Arte Acrylix brush. It is important to mask these areas as accurately as possible. Clean the brush immediately after use.

02. Mix colour pools

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

I prepared several colour pools for the first wet-into-wet washes. These mixes don't need to be exact; I call them my 'first guess'. They were prepared using the following colours: Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Violet and Raw Sienna (these three colours are the basic primaries upon which the entire painting is based). In addition, mixes using the following colours were also prepared: Raw Sienna, Cobalt Violet, Burnt Sienna, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean and Permanent Magenta.

03. Make a wet-into-wet diffused wash

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

Before introducing any of the pre-mixed colour pools, I wet the paper thoroughly. By doing so, a little more time can be taken applying the colour and a soft, diffused result is more readily achieved. My aim was to place the colour from light to dark and as accurately as possible, letting the colours mix freely.

04. Develop the foliage

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

When dry, the foliage on the main trees was painted using the following mixes: Raw Sienna and Cobalt Blue; Cobalt Blue, Raw Sienna and Permanent Magenta; Cobalt Violet, used sparingly, was introduced into the above, damp washes. I tried to keep this diffused wash simple with only a little definition to the edges of the foliage.

05. Remove masking fluid

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

Once completely dry, I removed all of the masking fluid using a clean finger. You should never attempt to remove masking fluid until the painting is completely dry. With a damp brush, I then softened a few of the harsher edges. This ensures a variety of edge and makes the masked areas appear more natural.

06. Develop tree trunks and branches

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

Using the No 2 Rigger and the No 8 Escoda Perla, I started to paint the tree trunks and branches. I created a natural taper on the finer twigs and branches by using the brush from bottom to top, finishing with a flick to end the stroke. The two colour mixes used were: Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue, one with slightly more Ultramarine in the mix and the other with more Burnt Sienna.

07. Paint the pony

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

To add life to my painting, I included a pony, which was taken from one of my reference photographs. Although I took care to retain the masked highlights, I had to use a little pure Titanium White acrylic paint to reinstate them. The colour mixes used were: Cobalt Blue, Permanent Magenta plus a touch of Raw Sienna, making a grey-blue colour. A mix of Ultramarine Blue plus Burnt Sienna was used for the dark patches.

08. Add details and foreground

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

I started to add the fence posts and more detail to the grasses and bushes on the fence line. I also began to develop the white building further, giving consideration to the tonal values with regard to the lit wall and the wall in shadow. These tonal values ensure that the painted building looks convincing and three-dimensional.

09. Paint falling snow

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

I had not planned to paint falling snow, but I felt that it would add atmosphere, further interest, and it would help to soften the overall feeling of the painting. I used a fairly fluid mix of Titanium White acrylic and loaded an old toothbrush with the mix. After trying out the effect on a scrap piece of paper, I spattered the paint carefully using my thumb. I built up the spatter in several applications to control how far that I wanted to take it.

10. Add finishing touches

(Image: © Robert Brindley)

In this step I gave careful consideration to all aspects of the painting, most importantly to ensure that the tonal values were correct. I was also mindful that by adding too much detail and unnecessary information,

I could easily reduce the effectiveness of the painting. I did very little extra at this stage, just adding a few grasses, fine twigs and a few more details on the building.

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Robert Brindley aims to capture light and atmosphere in a contemporary impressionistic style. He tutors watercolour around the UK and abroad.