In this post I will be taking a look at several master winter landscape paintings.
Sadly, I don't get much of a chance to paint snowy, winter landscapes. There is not much snow in Australia as you would expect. But next time I travel to the snow, I will draw inspiration from the master paintings in this post.
Before I get into it, I want to reiterate that everything you learn from this post can be applied to other subjects. It is just as much a post about how to see and analyze art as it is about painting winter landscapes.
Alfred Sisley, A Village Street in Winter, 1893
As with most of Alfred Sisley’s work, this painting demonstrates some very confident and loose brushwork. It is one of those paintings which do not look like much up close, but come together from afar.
In terms of composition, there is an interesting contrast between the linear objects (being the buildings and fences) and the organic objects (being the trees, bushes and the subject walking on the path). The linear objects also provide a strong sense of one point perspective, with all the lines converging towards a vanishing point around the middle of the painting.
This painting is a great example of how to paint the illusion of detail and texture. Notice the building walls – they are painted with nothing but scattered brushwork and broken color within a tight value range. You should also pay close attention to the use of edges in this painting. The edges and accurate values are what give the painting a quality of realism without there actually being much detail.
There is a strong warm light, cool shadow relationship. This indicates this may have been painted around sunrise or sunset. This is particularly evident in the snow, which is painted with light yellows in light, and dull blues and grays in shadow.
Isaac Levitan, Winter in the Forest, 1885
This is one of Isaac Levitan’s more intricate paintings. He usually painted in a much looser style.
There is a strong vertical theme in this painting, contrasted against the horizontal lines which represent the bottom and top of the tree line. The trees provide rhythm to the painting, much like the beating of drums in music. The small plants, twigs, lone wolf and other details add interest and complexity over the top, much like a violin solo in a symphony. There are many connections you can draw between music and art.
Hardly any color is used. Instead, it would appear Levitan relied on a strong value contrast between light and dark to create interest. Levitan also organized most of the values into neat groups, forming a strong notan design.
Tip: If you are painting with a dull color palette, then it is important that you look to other elements like value or brushwork to create interest. Otherwise, you may end up with a bland and uninviting painting.
The main subject appears to be the lone wolf, which is painted with fine detail. This seems to contrast against the bold and imposing trees which surround it.
Richard von Drasche-Wartinberg, In the Deep Winter, 1923
This painting has a pleasing three value notan structure, with there being three fairly distinct value groupings; the snow for the lights, the background trees for the midtones and the lake for the darks. There are also a few dark accents scattered throughout the painting which represent the trees and fences.
Notice the clever use of shape in the snow. Drasche-Wartinberg simplified the snow into distinct light and dark shapes. This indicates the snow is soft, fluffy and untouched. Most of the other paintings in this post feature a rougher approach to painting snow, with broken color and scattered brushwork.
The colors in this painting are very cool, indicating it was perhaps an overcast day. As with the earlier painting by Levitan, hue is not a strong feature of this painting. Instead, value contrast is heavily relied on with there being mostly different blue and green tones.
The small plants shooting up through the snow help lead you into the painting. They also represent a simple way to add a level of sophistication to the painting without having to do all that much work. Sir Arthur Streeton did this in many of his paintings. He would paint with large, solid shapes then add a few finer details over the top.
Once your eyes enter the painting, the snaking river, fence posts and arrangement of other shadows and objects continue to guide you.
Ilya Efimovich Repin, Winter Landscape, 1903
This painting is much looser than the work we typically see from Ilya Repin. But it still looks very realistic despite the lack of intricate detail. This is because of the accurate values and the use of detail only where it matters.
Repin used a subtle variation in saturation and value to create a sense of depth amongst the dense trees. The trees in the background are nothing more than a block of dull green with some thin, light-gray lines over the top.
The painting feels very warm, which gives an earthy and natural feel. If I were to try and paint this, I would consider using some cooler colors in the darker areas of the painting to push the warm light, cool shadow relationship. It is always a worthwhile exercise to ponder over what you might do differently, or even better, compared to the master paintings.
Paul Gaugin, Breton Village Under Snow, 1894
I selected this painting by Paul Gaugin because of the awkward perspective used. Most of the other paintings in this post are fairly standard compositions, but this painting breaks many of the “rules”.
I think it is good to paint these awkward compositions from time to time. They can break up your thinking and free you from painting the same standard composition over and over again.
The houses appear squished into the painting, with very little negative space used.
The colors appear muddy, which indicates heavily trodden, dirty snow. There also appears to be a subtle contrast between warm lights and cool darks.
The hard edges used to outline most of the objects give the painting a very stylistic feel, kind of like an illustration. Sometimes, it is effective to step away from painting a subject exactly as you see it in order to push a certain style. Just be careful if you go this direction, as it is difficult to pull off.
- You should not just use pure titanium white to paint snow. In fact, pure white should only be used to paint the brightest highlights of snow. The color of the light illuminating the subject will determine the color of the snow.
- These winter paintings demonstrate the influence that light has over the colors we see. If you don’t understand the light, then you will struggle to use color well.
- If you are painting a subject without much color, then you need to rely more on value contrast.
- Subtle details like small plants or rocks can be used to add a level of complexity and sophistication without actually doing much. You can also use these details to help draw your attention into the painting, like in Drasche-Wartinberg’s painting.
(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet).