Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Adirondack Art: What is the Color of Snow?

Up Near the Black Pond CutAs an artist, I know snow isn’t white. Perhaps some of the more scientific oriented folks who read or contribute to the Almanack can offer scientific explanations. I’m going to tell you how an artist perceives snow.

This little painting, “Up Near the Black Pond Cut”, practically went viral when I posted it on my Facebook page in early December. It had nearly 300 “shares” and over 50,000 views!

It’s a winter scene – but there’s almost no white snow in it! I think the color and the light is what made it such an appealing painting. It was based on photos I’d taken last winter at the Paul Smith’s College VIC on the Esker Trail. 

The snow is multiple variations of a pale, warmish aqua blue as it was late in the day and much of it was in shadow. The cast shadows were even a stronger, cooler blue and where the low rays of sun hit the snow, it was almost a peachy color. Even the white clouds in the distance are reflecting that warm pinkish gold color.

Please note, however, that you won’t find any of these colors in your paint sets – there are no pure tube colors in this oil painting. Everything is made of subtle mixtures of colors, many of them grayed just a little by mixing a bit of a complimentary color together. For example – the blue snow is not a bright blue snow because a little bit of burnt sienna, a reddish brown color, has been mixed in with it to tone it down a little. Nature is much more often subtle than bold or intense in her color schemes!

Recently, I managed to get out to the VIC late in the afternoon to ski. It was calm and a balmy 10 degrees.  Mostly overcast and grey with a few light spots in the sky and even a couple little patches of blue sky and pinkish clouds where the sun tried to poke through. There was about 2 inches of new snow on top of all the ice. I avoided the hills.

It was calm and quiet and the light was very flat. The new snow was a consistent pale, light-gray with just the slightest suggestion of purple – but in my newly cut tracks slicing through it was brilliant white, with a faint gray shadow along the edge. There were no cast shadows in the woods – not enough light. I was hoping for some pinkish light as sundown approached, but it just got grayer and the light faded away.

There was a light mist of snow blowing down. In the evening I watched the Channel 5 weather report and the radar showed pockets of snow near Saranac Lake. Tom Messner said it wasn’t really snowing there, but I knew it had been. It had been more like clouds of snow, making everything paler and grayer in the distance. I always pay attention to light and color!

Go out on a cold, crisp, bright sunny day and what color is the snow? Then it actually looks whiter than white – maybe even a little golden. Ski tracks cutting through snow on a clear day like that will be a warmish, aqua blue along the edges. Almost glowing in the cast shadows. I love to be out in a field or by a frozen pond where there are huge white pines casting immense blue shadows across the snow. You can practically see them grow as the sun sinks lower in the sky. I recall skiing out on a marsh one day like this and looking ahead, maybe 100 yards, and there between some low bushes I could have sworn there was a large bright blue tarp crumpled up! Who would have done such a thing – letting their tarp blow out across the frozen wetlands? Ask I skied closer, it turned out to just be a cast shadow on the snow!

What happens on a warmer, cloudier day? The snow will be grayer and the shadows in the ski tracks a cooler blue.

AlpenglowThe best snow colors of all happen when you are up on a mountain, or to the west of some mountains and the sun goes down in a clear sky. This is when alpenglow happens. According to Wikipedia  “Alpenglow (from German: Alpenglühen) is an optical phenomenon in which a horizontal red glowing band is observed on the horizon opposite to the sun.”

Observing alpenglow is a rare experience and takes just the right conditions. The first time I experienced it was while driving Route 86 from Paul Smith’s to Saranac Lake. Anyone who has driven that road knows you hit a high point where the Harrietstown Cemetery is and you have an excellent open view of Whiteface, Moose and McKenzie Mountains, as well as Marcy and the more distant High Peaks further off to the southeast.

I reached that spot on a cold, clear winter day just as the sun was going down. As I approached it I could see there was a heavy coating of fresh white powder and the mountains were a brilliant white – then they began to turn pink! I pulled over to watch and take photos. At first a warm, golden pinkish glow and then as the sun passed further below the horizon, it cooled to a brilliant magenta. I was astounded. I’d never witnessed anything so beautiful. I attempted to paint the view from my photos several times but I don’t think I ever really reproduced what I saw. I’m sure people who never experienced alpenglow would have thought my paintings artificially colorful and unreal! Timing is also essential as the whole transition of color only lasts around 5-10 minutes.

However, even better than witnessing alpenglow is being inside alpenglow. Mount Baker, in the Village of Saranac Lake, is perfect for this. The hike up is easy and less than a mile and there is an unobstructed view to the west looking out over the village and Lower Saranac Lake beyond. I happened to hike up one day late in the fall and sat on one of the bare rocky areas to watch the sun go down. All of a sudden I realized everything around me was pink. I was literally in and part of the alpenglow. Vertical objects, like tree trunks (and I suppose me, when I stood in the light) picked up the most color. It was wonderful being part of that phenomenon until the other mountains began turning purple and I knew I needed to head down in a hurry. Note to self: bring a headlamp next time.

I found many different explanations of alpenglow online and decided I did not need to really understand the scientific cause and am happy to just enjoy seeing it, as well as all the other different colors of snow. I think I pay attention to all these subtle color variations because I am a painter. I “look” at my surroundings all the time and take mental notes on what colors I would mix if I were painting the scene.

If anyone is interested in seeing the two paintings included here, they are part of  the “Winter Wonders Art Show” at the VIC, through January 29.  Also included are paintings by Nancy Brossard and Edith Urban and photographs by Karla Brieant, Eleanor Sweeney and Mark Kurtz – all with a winter theme. I hope my descriptions here will encourage readers to stop and look a bit more closely at all this beautiful “white” stuff we have all around us. Just avoid the yellow snow.

Painting by Sandra Hildreth: Above, Up Near the Black Pond Cut; and below, Alpenglow.


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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting. Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Sandy’s work can be seen on her website sandrahildreth.com.

6 Responses

  1. I’m not a scientist Sandra but as a photographer I know that snow, like any “white” surface reflects the color of the light that falls on it in a phenomenon called “color reflection”. So snow is generally a reflection of the color of the sky since that is where the light is coming from. Light in shadows and at midday is blueish in hue because of atmospheric scattering of light rays. Light earlier and later in the day tends to be warmer, more yellow in hue because the wave length of yellow to red get through the curvature of the atmosphere better when the sun light strikes it at an angle. At extreme angles, predominantly red gets through so we have red sunsets.

  2. Curt Austin says:

    Discussion of this topic gets confusing because we use the same word – color – to describe the spectrum of light and the reflective characteristics of an object. Saying light is red and saying an apple is red are very different statements. In the same way an apple is red, snow is white – always white, white in the sun, white at night, white in a disco. The spectrum of the light reflecting off the snow is highly variable since it depends on the incoming light spectrum. The “color” of light is ephemeral, the color of an object is fixed. The light reflecting off the apple is ephemeral.

    That’s the physics. Human color perception greatly complicates matters, since within reason, it will perceive snow correctly as a white substance despite the spectrum of the light that illuminates it. What happens when the snow is illuminated by, say, direct sunlight here, and by an expanse of blue sky there? That is, in dappled sunlight? Well, our brains are pretty good at ignoring that problem, too. But only when we’re there, observing the snow directly. In a painting or in a photograph, this perceptual magic doesn’t work quite the same – the brain knows it’s not looking at snow. Yet if a painter used only neutral paint, it would surely look “funny”.

    I’ve photographed wedding ceremonies where the bride is illuminated by incandescent down lights (reddish), fluorescent house lights (greenish) and window light (bluish). The only way to make the gown look OK is to convert to B&W. But do that to snow, and it will look wrong!

    My point: color is weird, particularly when white is involved.

    • Thank you, Curt for explaining things this way. As an artist, I am very conscious of the spectrum of light and the reflective characteristics of an object. When painting an apple, I’m using either opaque oil colors, or transparent watercolors – but am attempting to paint light and how it impacts and is impacted by objects! I also like to remind people how the glass prism held up in sunlight will split the light into the colors of the rainbow – proof that “white” light actually contains all the colors. But when I mix all the colors together on my palette – I get a blackish, neutral color! So mixing together pinks and oranges to try to paint the color of the light of alpenglow is a real challenge!

      • Bill Ott says:

        Great art Sandra.

        Bob and I were standing in front of a truck in his car lot long ago, me arguing that it was green and Bob swearing it was brown. We argued about the color for weeks until that truck was sold. Was one of us wrong? Who knows, but that was my introduction to true color vs. perceived color.

        I don’t think cameras are much better. That is why I use a gray card if I really want the colors right. However, I have always figured snow to be a good white point. Now I have to check that out some more, with a gray card of course.

        If you want a gray card, get one from Kodak. One you print out may have colored inks in it. I know your photo opportunities don’t give you much time, but try putting that card in a photo when done. Open the photo in Irfanview (a free program I have been using for 5-10 years), go to image,then color corrections, and follow the hint on the lower left, clicking on the gray card of course. Balance the gray card and see if it helps. Gray cards certainly are not the end all and be all, but they can weed out some of the problems caused by automatic color correction done in digital cameras or automated film processing.

        There are more variables, such as scanner, monitor and printer calibration, and viewing light source. So probably you should ignore all this – your painting really does not seem to need any help.

        Bill Ott

  3. Jesse B says:

    Snow appears white because the air spaces in between the frozen (clear) water molecules scatter light of all wavelengths. If no wavelengths are absorbed, the eye see’s them all simultaneously and interprets them as white (conversely when all wavelengths are absorbed, we see it as black).

    Interestingly the same effect is visible with polar bears. Their hairs are actually transparent and colorless, but when the light hits the insulating empty air space, it’s refracted back fully and seen as white.

  4. Ann H. says:

    Sandy, your prose is as clear, faithfully detailed, and spirited as your beautiful oils and watercolor! We always look forward to discovering and studying your works when there’s a show, but I really love hearing about your experiences and how you are developing your artistry.
    Your interpretation of these snowy scenes is more than glimmer and reflective qualities – you capture atmosphere in many subtle ways that really allow the viewer to become immersed in your experience.
    We hope there will be more opportunities to hear about your work and travels.

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