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White Christmas - How to paint snow in watercolour by Robert Newcombe

Posted on Wed 21 Nov 2018

White Christmas

Snow scenes are a gift for watercolourists, because the white of the paper is used to represent the snow – no white paint is ever needed.  This requires careful planning, however, to identify the areas of snow covering in the scene and to cut around them whilst painting.

Ravenstone Church, December 2011, watercolour, 10x14in. (25x35cm)

Painting on site

Where I live in Buckinghamshire we rarely experience a white Christmas, but in 2011 we had a heavy fall of snow in the middle of December and I ventured out to paint the village church en plein air. It was cold with a weak winter sun so it was important to dress warmly. I set up my easel in the churchyard, pushing it into the snow, selected a quarter Imperial sheet of Bockingford paper and painted Ravenstone Church December 2011 (above).

I drew the subject with a B pencil then painted the blue sky with threatening clouds, followed quickly by the yellow-grey walls of the church, carefully painting around the snow on the roof, parapets and buttresses. The dark yew tree behind the church tower and the tree on the right were next, followed by the shadows on the church and the foreground.

The annual carol service was to take place later in the day so I invented people entering the church and warm candlelight in the windows. The painting took an-hour-and-a-quarter to complete, including pauses to allow the paint to dry between washes, by which time my hands were extremely cold and I gladly packed up and went home.

Weston Underwood Church

You will need:


  • *Whatman NOT 140lb (300gsm) watercolour paper 11x15in.(28x38cm)

*Whatman is whiter than some watercolour paper and is ideal for snow scenes, but any watercolour paper will do


  • 1in. hake for the broad washes
  • Escoda Perla No. 8 or similar for the architectural details
  • Rigger for the trees
  • 2B pencil

Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour

  • Raw sienna
  • Burnt sienna
  • Burnt umber
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Brown madder
  • Light red
  • Permanent magenta or alizarin crimson
  • Winsor blue (green shade)

This photograph of Weston Underwood Church was taken in April. The church in the next village from where I live is a typical mediaeval village church. I put a 3x3 grid on the photograph to help you to transfer the image accurately. I then used my 5Cs of painting – concept, composition, contrast, colour and completion – to develop a winter interpretation of this subject.

Step 1 Concept (what do you want to say?)

What I want to say about this painting is ‘English country church in winter’ and the centre of interest is the church. I decided to have a strong sun coming from the left (the opposite direction to the photograph) in order to light up the left façade of the church and create strong shadows to give good tonal contrast at the centre of interest.

Step 2 Composition (the design of the painting)

Draw the subject with a 2B pencil, referring to the 3x3 grid on the photograph. I left out the rather ugly bush at the left centre of the photograph and reversed the direction of the furrows in the foreground to give directional perspective lines in the snow, leading the eye to the centre of interest – the church.

Step 3 Contrast (tonal values)

1 The next ‘c’ is contrast or tonal values. On the left of a fresh sheet of watercolour paper create a five-value tonal scale using 1in. (25 mm) squares, numbering the squares from 1 to 5. Tone 1 is the white of the paper and Tone 5 is the darkest tone you can achieve with ultramarine blue.  Intermediate tones are achieved by adding water to the Tone 5 mix.

2 Referring to your five-value tonal scale and using ultramarine blue produce a small tonal plan for the painting to enable you to see the colours as tones. The white of the paper is the lightest tone (Tone 1 – the snow) then use the almost neat ultramarine blue for the darkest tone (Tone 5 – the dark bush in front of the church) and the intermediate tones shown as the numbers on the tonal plan.

Step 4 Colour (warm or cool)
Paintings are either predominantly warm or predominantly cool.  A winter painting is always going to be predominantly cool, dominated by blues, purples and greens. 

1. The sky (tones 2 and 3)

From now on you need to cut round the snow areas carefully to preserve the white of the paper. Turn the paper upside down to paint the sky to prevent dribbles running down the white paper representing the snow as shown in the image below. Use the hake to paint a Tone 2 purple wash (permanent magenta), beginning at the snow-covered roofs of the church and cottage on the left and taking the wash down to ground level elsewhere.  Gradually change this to a Tone 3 wash of ultramarine  blue at the zenith of the sky. The paper cockles slightly at this stage but will dry flat.

2. First wash on the buildings (Tone 3)

Mix ultramarine blue with light red to make a warm grey then add raw sienna to produce the dull yellow-grey of the Cotswold stone.  Using the No. 8 Round brush paint the walls and tower of the church and the gravestones.  Paint the cottage walls light red.

3. The shadows, trees and furrows (Tones 4 and 5)

With the same brush paint a transparent shadow wash of ultramarine blue and brown madder onto the shadow sides of the church, cottage and trees. The transparency of the shadow wash allows the local colour to show through, which can be reinforced with strong local colour dropped into the wet shadow mix, in other words neat raw sienna into the tower shadow for variation. Use the same colour to show the underlying furrows in the foreground.  Paint the tree trunks with the Rigger and a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber to give a dark grey. Drag the brush quickly over the trunks to leave white paper to represent snow clinging to the rough surfaces. A stiff mix of Winsor blue (green shade) and burnt sienna (Tones 4 and 5) is the colour for the dark green bushes.

Step 5 Completion (when is the painting finished?)

I was now nearing the completion of the painting although the trees still needed some indication of shape so using quick downward strokes of the Rigger I dry-brushed in light burnt umber. At this point I referred back to my concept of ‘English country church in winter’. Had I achieved my concept? I think I had so the painting was finished.

The finished painting Weston Underwood Church, watercolour, 10x14in. (25x35cm)

Robert Newcombe
Contact Robert at for details of his book Robert Newcombe’s 5Cs of Painting and accompanying courses or visit his website at

This demonstration is taken from the January 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy


White Christmas - How to paint snow in watercolour by Robert Newcombe


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