Painting White Dogs In Snow: 4 Years of Lessons
I’m a professional pet portrait artist, and a few times every year I’ll be commissioned to paint a snow scene.
This month I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and see if anything’s changed in the past few years as far as my skill level and style go, specifically with regards to snow. Turns out, YES. Huge difference.
Because these lessons are so fresh for me, I’d like to share what took my snow-painting skills from amateur to pro.
In this post, we’ll go from me not painting snow at all and just leaving a big white space, to being able to render reflected light and translucence.
2017: How NOT to Paint Snow with Oil Paints
Super simple: don’t paint the snow.
Just leave a big white space that kind of implies snow, and call it a day. While this can be a totally valid stylistic decision and I don’t want to knock that, it’s also the painting-snow equivalent of putting everyone’s hands in their pockets because hands are hard.
You don’t learn anything that way, and it’s super limiting if the composition demands actual rendering.
Furthermore, you can see from the whitest-white on the left on the Corgi’s ruff, that if I were to put ultra-white snow behind that, you would never know where the edge is.
A Samoyed in the snow might blend in, but he’s not invisible. Below, let’s take a look at how to paint white dogs on white backgrounds.
2018: Painting a Dog in Snow with Unrealistic Shadows
This one’s going to take a bit more analysis, so let’s break it down. First, let’s look at whether the Samoyed, Bao Bao, looks right. Then, let’s unpack what’s going on with the snowy background of the painting.
Firstly, Bao Bao the Samoyed.
Bao Bao’s facial anatomy is in the right place, and the softness in his ears is reading great. But as we move down his body, the shadows become first stylized (around his chest and back legs) and then way too deep.
There’s just no way that light wouldn’t find its way into that space on a sunny day when snow is as reflective as it is. And with a white dog? Yeah, those shadows should be half that strength at least, with maybe a thin line of darkest dark in a couple spots…maybe.
Let’s compare to a photo of a Samoyed and a Husky in the snow, below.
Notice how the shadows of the shapes of these dogs are far stronger than the shadows of individual clumps of fur. You can especially see the difference between object-shadow and texture in the large blue shadow behind the husky on the left.
I did a (really, really rough) digital rework of the piece to show how the “big” shadows make a huge difference in making a dog look round.
Compare this to the image above and you’ll see a significant difference.
2020 - Using Hue and Tone to Differentiate Subject & Background
Skip forward a couple years and you can see a big difference in how I’m using shadow to paint shapes instead of texture. Crosby, below, has clear contrast with his background.
For example, on the left side of the image you can see that Crosby’s fur is significantly lighter than the snow behind it because of the lighting.
Is terrier fur actually whiter than snow?
Of course not!
But because of the lighting, it reflects more light to our eyes in this scene, and therefore has to be painted a lighter colour on canvas.
2021 - Reflections, Shadows, and Highlights take Painting Winter Scenes to the Next Level
In this portrait of Summit, another painting of a white dog on snow, you can see a TON of shape and shadow.
The sharp dark lines in the foreground are caused by roots and other disruptions in the snow, but all over Summit’s body you can see just how much dark paint you can use on a white dog. And she still reads as white!
The lighting in this winter scene comes from above and behind Summit’s face, so she’s partially backlit.
This effect is called Rim Lighting.
Rim lighting is a great technique to make a subject more visible against a background, because it creates a bright halo around their outer edge.