Tips for Drawing Winter Scenes

How to Draw Snow and Ice

Winter landscape by Claude Monet.

rQGnadHwK8lSmg at Google Cultural Institute/Claude Monet/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

There are several components to a successful winter scene: your materials, your subject, and your method. Winter weather, snow, and icy surfaces have unique properties that will reward your thoughtful drawing choices.

Materials You Need

Start with good drawing paper. Texture and color are very important when drawing winter scenes. For some, a little texture will be fine, but generally, you'll want a smooth surface that will let you capture the reflections and the crisp, bright highlights of the snowy landscape. Smooth office paper is okay for sketching. Otherwise, choose a hot-pressed watercolor paper or Bristol board. Choose a white paper, as the off-white paper will give you a dull, gloomy result.

Use pencils and pastels for drawing. Coarse shading will usually sabotage your drawing. You can use a bit of texture in other elements of the drawing, but the snow and ice surfaces will call for very fine, detailed shading. Snow crystals will often give a soft, even grain, while shiny ice requires crisp, smooth edges. Use a full range of pencils and keep them sharp. The chalkiness of pastel is great for snow, but you'll need to use a more blended surface.

Winter Subjects

Choose your reference source carefully. Not every photograph, however pretty, is going to be suitable for drawing. This is particularly true of frozen waterfalls — sometimes they look pretty odd! Take photos from several angles to give yourself a choice. You also don't have to draw the whole photograph. Sometimes, you might want to crop out a detail to draw.

Remember, the white paper is the brightest white you've got, so you have to use it carefully. Only your brightest sunlit whites are going to be pure white within other areas of white. That said, the sun on the snow can obviously be dazzling, with large areas of white dominating your scene. You'll need to look carefully and decide where you are going to make the transition from pure white paper to fine shading.

Use a hard pencil or some brushed powdered graphite for very light areas. A hard pencil and fine shading is best for light areas, rather than smudging, to keep the tones fresh and bright. You can also try to use a tortillon as a drawing tool by rubbing it over graphite heavily shaded onto some scrap paper, then drawing with it. Use the hardest pencil you can for each level of tone, as very soft pencils look grainier. For very dark areas, try layering soft and hard pencils to create a smooth finish.

Drawing Snow in a Winter Scene

The large, smooth areas of white, tangled areas of bare tree branches in a winter landscape can seem to flatten space and make it very difficult to organize your scene. Look for dominant features, such as a group of large trees or the slight line of a bank, to give form and direction. As the artist, you can leave things out or add them.

You can also use steps of tonal value, making clear divisions from one tone to the next. Keep the same level of shading as you work on connected or similar areas across the scene. This is a bit like limiting your palette in painting. Plan out clear steps of light, mid/light, mid, mid/dark and dark. You might then decide to even out the transition from one tonal value to the next, but in the planning stages, visualizing these clear steps can be helpful. Try doing a thumbnail sketch first.

You can also use texture to help organize space. Accentuate atmospheric perspective — the background trees will have a smoother look than the close ones, and distant edges will be softer. You can use these effects in your drawing, even if you can't see it in your source photo. Emphasize different textures — coarse bark, wood grain — to set off the smoothness of the snow. Ice forms may be complex, sometimes with crisp edges or detailed highlights. Be patient and draw these carefully.

Lastly, don't be afraid to use dark shading. Low winter sun can throw dark shadows, and dark buildings and branches can look dramatic against the white snow. Strong, dark areas make the white look whiter. Try using a value finder to help judge the tone of difficult areas.