Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Painting snow – Learning from Claude Monet

It has been snowing all night and every inch of ground is covered in snow. I like painting snowy landscapes, so this is great news. One of my favourite paintings is a snow painting by Claude Monet with a magpie perched on top of a fence gate. I never miss an occasion to go to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (France) to see it. This painting was done by Monet on site in the countryside near Etretat. The painting was rejected by the jury of the 1869 salon in Paris.

The Magpie by Claude Monet. Between 1868 and 1869 - (89 cm x 130 cm) Oil on canvas.

The magpie makes a perfect focus point for the painting as its black and white feathers sum-up perfectly the contrast created in a snowy landscape. It also brings some life to the landscape. The backlit scene with some rays of light peering through the hurdle and projecting the shadows towards the viewer adds to the dramatic effect.

What can we learn from this painting?

Using a limited palette: Monet used a very restrained palette compared to his other works and the snow is painted in high key, reinforcing the contrast with the dark tree bark. The overall painting is very luminous, even with the use of pale colours. If it is snowing or the sky is grey, the spectrum of colours becomes narrower with mid-tones becoming grey.

High contrasts: See how the trees and tree branches are very dark, with the use of black and dark brown. The intensity of the light on the snow makes everything look darker to our eye. In your painting, you can recreate the effect of nature by using darker tone for objects and trees covered or surrounded by snow. Another form of contrast is between the cool colours of the snow and the warmer brown tones of the trees and the buildings.

The sky tone: The sky is darker than the rest of the landscape. Normally, the sky is always lighter in tone than the landscape, except when it is snowing.

The snow is not white: Notice that there is no pure white in this painting and that the shadow of the hurdle is painted with some grey blue. Painting snow is the occasion to explore a palette of tinted white, from blue to yellowish white.

The snow covers the landscape: If you take a close looks at the foreground, you will see that the snow was painted on top of a Yellow Ochre background. Touches of paint for the snow are intertwined with spots of ground colour. In the same way, Monet painted the snow on the hurdle and on the branches last. This is why I think it is easier to paint snow landscape in oil or acrylic (that have good covering property) rather than in watercolour where you have to reserve the white.

Simplify the background: You can simplify a lot as soon as you do away from the foreground. If the snow is falling down, visibility will be reduced and far away trees will be light grey of brown masses.

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