We are all aware of the transformation which follows a snow fall. Ken Howard has frequently seized the opportunity to capture the effects of snow both in London and on the moors of Devon. Some of the resulting paintings illustrate his suggestions for different ways of painting snow.
Snow has the power to make even the most dull subject visually exciting. Even a London suburb of the 1930s will suddenly become transformed to a wonderland of exciting visual effects by an inch of snow. I myself grew up in just such a suburb, and the first painting I ever remember making was of people skating on the frozen Welsh Harp reservoir. Later, my back garden, a small plot of grass with an air raid shelter in the middle, became a constant source of inspiration; never more so than in the winter when the grass became white and the snow revealed the multitude of greys and rich browns in the slatted fencing. Some years later I had a small flat in Chelsea and the view from the kitchen window was a landscape of roofs and chimneys looking towards Lotts Road power station. I still clearly remember the excitement I felt when entering the kitchen on a cold January morning and seeing this new world outside.
Snow at Sampford, Evening, oil, (35¾” x 35¾”)
Many painters have experienced this reaction to the effects of snow. I do not intend in this article to go into an historical study, but need only mention Bruegel, Courbet, Sisley, Monet and Marquet to make my point. The public too is deeply touched by paintings of snow. Whereas very often people will not purchase a painting or reproduction because of strong associations; a churchyard with death or an industrial painting with work, dirt, or smoke, when it comes to snow they seem to forget their associations with cold, frozen pipes or icy roads!
Some years ago, I had a large canvas which I decided was a complete failure and so began to paint over it with white undercoat. As I painted out large areas, it suddenly struck me that where the white paint came up against other remaining passages of colour, the areas seemed to work. The effect was transforming in much the same as the first fall of snow; I quickly removed the undercoat with turps and began to work on the painting again.
The Edge of the Moor, oil, (8” x 10”)
My general philosophy about landscape painting is that you must immerse yourself in the subject completely. I now paint many of my landscapes in Devon where I have a studio on Dartmoor. When the snow comes, I am usually cut off – not only by road but sometimes by phone. Although this may sound traumatic, if you are well prepared, the advantages for an artist are considerable: no distractions, no visitors, none of those self-inflicted distractions which you make for yourself when a painting gets difficult. No, when the snow comes, you are isolated with your painting and although sometimes not the easiest way of life, these are ideal conditions for a painter to work in from time to time.
Basically, I work outside most of the time. Occasionally I have worked from one of the windows of the studio, but I find that limits the possibility of my composition. Observing snow from the confines of a warm room I also find disadvantageous. If we are to paint something we must feel it, smell it, be in it, suffer from it if necessary. In that way I feel we may get near to capturing it.
Snow at Gees Farm, oil, (20” x 24”)
The fact that the very nature of snow painting means that is very cold can have both positive and negative aspects. It forces us on with the painting; very often I think when painting outside on a balmy day we can relax too much mentally. The cold of a winter’s day is a great asset to concentration.
When I return to painting snowscapes after a break, I usually work on quite a small scale. Very often, when we are deeply touched by a subject, we throw ourselves into a large painting too quickly. Before starting a large painting we must either make many studies, or build up to it through a series of smaller paintings. When working on a small panel you can quickly grasp the whole. I have often wondered why it is not possible to paint a large canvas just as openly and freely as a small panel by simply using larger brushes and thus keeping the breadth and spontaneity, but have never succeeded in doing this except during periods of painting snow. Whether it is the clarity of vision or the broad simplicity which snow in landscapes gives I do not know, but the painting Snow at Sampford Evening is 4 by 4 feet and yet I painted it in one sitting using a one-inch house painting brush and a number six filbert. Admittedly, it was the last painting of a series. I had submerged myself in the subject for ten days and had really got into a good rhythm of work. The next day the thaw set in and it is surprising how quickly snow can disappear. I believe that had the snow remained, I could have moved on to even larger canvases and painted them equally spontaneously. During the past few years, I have become more interested in compositing landscapes into areas which are very intense and others which are more open and simple. Of course snow gives me endless possibilities to develop this idea, for the large simple fields of snow could almost be seen as bare canvas. In Snow at Gees Farm, for instance, the colour of the farm was so intense that the simplicity of the large foreground of snow complemented the complex richness of the farm and the trees.
Blizzard at Sampford Spinney, oil, (12” x 16”)
Snow of course has many different aspects. I find most appealing the still heavy days when the snow is very white and dense and the sky is almost yellow ochre it is so heavy. On such days the colours of trees and buildings become rich in grey and earthy colour, brought into relief by the white of the snow. When painting these conditions I often use white undercoat instead of flake white; as long as the painting is done in one wet then I have never found this detrimental and it gives the opportunity to work into the lightest tones as they dry with slight modulations of grey. For these still days I use basically an earth palette consisting of white, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt sienna, Indian red, ultramarine blue and black.
Then there are the days when the sun shines and the snow effect becomes almost ‘sweet’, giving blue shadows against the marzipan colours of the landscape where the sun strikes – these days too have their own magic. To capture these effects my palette is based mainly on primary colours. White, yellow ochre, lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, cadmium red, alizarin crimson and viridian green. I have never believed that a painter should stick to the same palette regardless of the subject. Naturally your own way of seeing will affect the colours you arrive at no matter the palette chosen, but I think it is possible to become simply mannered if you stick to the same palette all the time.
On those incredible days when the snow is falling (often on the moor where I paint it is in the form of a blizzard) it is necessary to work inside. I am fortunate in having a long double front door as my studio was originally a school, and from what used to be the entrance hall I can sit and observe the full fury of the blizzard. Blizzard at Sampford (above) was painted in exactly this way.
Dartmoor Snow from Stoneycroft, oil, (14” x 18”)
When composing a canvas, I find that although the placing of shapes on the surface is completely in my hands, I must always get to a particular position in the landscape where the shapes all come together in such a way as to touch me deeply. Here I found such a position on the previous day, but when I returned there was a rather large bull in the field. As I began to approach the spot, the bull began to approach me, and when we were only a few feet apart, I lost my nerve and turned to run. Being somewhat encumbered by my painting gear, I lost my footing and fell in an ungainly heap, still clutching desperately to my precious materials. The steaming bull paused, looked at this incongruous heap of sprawling humanity in the snow, then turned and lumbered off with a completely disinterested air. I then proceeded to my spot and the bull and I happily shared the field for the rest of the afternoon.
Snow needs no such outside excitement, of course, to be stimulating. Whether in your back garden, local park, or in the depth of the country, it is a never ending source of inspiration.