30-in-30: How to paint a snow storm

snow storm
White out study
8″ x 10″ watercolor on Arches 140# block paper

A recent photo of a white-out blizzard in the East posted by my cousin intrigued me. A study in high-key values, it called out to me to be painted. Permission to use her photo was granted and here you can see the first pass of the results. (Although deer do roam her property, this little doe is from my own head.)

I love snow. Granted, until this year I’ve never lived where there’s been too much (meaning any) snow, but I live in the mountains now, and this December we had a couple unusually heavy snowstorms. The snow was magical; the cold air made me tingle, the cool light reflecting the sky made my heart sing. But alas, I was too busy to do any plein air painting while there was snow on the ground, but there’s a snow storm promised for next week, so I’m hoping…

The hardest thing for me was keeping my values light. I normally paint with a pretty heavily loaded brush. I also realize that I want to mess with the composition a bit. And it really didn’t turn out the way I saw it in my head, so I think it deserves a couple more attempts, with more time in the planning.

pencil drawing
Pencil study for White Out

How to begin a painting



Study for painting 3" x 5" watercolor painting
Study for painting
 I’ve started the drawing for this painting. Six hours into the drawing and I feel like it’s just beginning to emerge from a mush of pencilscratchings. But I dreamed the colors, and couldn’t wait to get them onto paper. 

Painting is a very slow process for me. I’m not a slap dash painter; I dream, plan, draw, make more drawings, prepare my references, compose the image, draw the image, stew and chew my cuticles, draw some more, then finally start to paint. In a world of instant gratification, I’m a total throwback.

But when, at his workshop last week, Ted Nuttall told me to keep working on my drawing for the whole of the first day, my heart kind of grinched around in my chest. I’d already spent a lot of time on that drawing, but hey, I was paying the man to help me with my life’s work.  I kept at the drawing, all day, and eventually, I really looked at it.  And there was a sorting, as if things were sliding into place. I found a multitude of drawing mistakes that would have plagued me once I began to paint; fixing those mistakes felt really good, like scratching an itch in the deep part of my heart. The painting eventually became Strength. It has a certain clearness, a crispness that I really like. It makes music in my head.

There are days, though,  when I have to simply let go and paint. If you paint, you know what I mean: You need to feel the water love the brush, and the brush kiss the paper with paint . That’s the time for color  studies.

These next two studes are for a painting my Dad has requested. It’s a small black and white photo of my mom he’s had in his wallet for nearly 60 years (can it be that long since they were so young, beautiful, and full of early romance?).

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study
Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study


It’s interesting how the composition and editing of the background changes the story. What stories do you see?

Study for painting 5" x 3" watercolor study
Study for painting
5″ x 3″ watercolor study

The mess and the makings

A new painting is taking shape, which means I’m making lots of color sketches at my little art desk. This is a shot of the mess and the makings.

I use a metal palette for nearly all my watercolor paintings, although sometimes I dip into a round plastic palette when I need a color that’s not in my metal palette. You can see by the stacks of yogurt containers that I eat a lot of Pavel’s yogurt.

These are a few of the studies I’ve made for this painting. The earlier ones don’t really look like anything, just blobs of color.  You can see that the Space Shuttle Endeavor is going to be part of this painting.

Don’t worry, the stained paper towel on the table has been used to mop up cadmium red and burnt sienna. It just looks like blood in the photo. Well, it looks like blood in real life too. While painting, I go through a lot of paper towels—Viva brand is my favorite—and they litter the floor around the easel. When I’m working on a particularly red-heavy painting, the drifts of  red-covered paper towels make the studio look like a scene from a Stephen King novel.

These two studies are my favorites. They will go together somehow. I’m still working that out.

And this is part of the final drawing. I spend a stupid amount of time on drawing—nearly 12 hours for this piece. But while I’m drawing, I’m also planning the painting, thinking about what I want to do. Where will I lose edges, where will I find them? How will I place the value pattern? How will I apply the paint?

I paint in my head many times before I ever put paintbrush to paper. I often dream about it in the early morning hours when I’m in that half-sleep waiting for the alarm to go off. Those are pleasant dreams, mostly, because watercolor wipes off easily in dreams.