Drawing a Winter Scene: 3 Studies after Sisley
How to draw a winter scene
Winter scenes are not the easiest landscapes to draw, because the main question remains: How do you draw snow? How do you convey the luminosity and texture of snow covering streets and houses? What colours do you use? What difference does it make whether you paint a winter scene with gouache or draw it with black ink or coloured pencils?
As always, I turn to the masters of the past for inspiration. In the Metropolitan Museum, New York, you can admire a painting by Alfred Sisley that I thought could teach me a lot about snowy winter scenes. Alfred Sisley, who was born to British parents in Paris and lived in France, was part of the famous Impressionists group. The Metropolitan Museum’s website explains that he, Renoir and Monet were inspired by an older painter, Gustave Courbet, who exhibited a group of snowy landscapes in 1867. They tried to render snowy landscapes in white and grey with just touches of colour. Monet and Sisley continued to paint snow scenes for the rest of their lives.
Sisley’s painting, Rue Eugène Moussoir at Moret: Winter, is not very big: only 46.7 cm × 56.5 cm (18⅜ × 22¼ in.). Painted in 1891, it depicts a street near his home in Moret, south of Paris. The wall on the right belongs to the village hospital. I am puzzled by this painting because:
It seems very monochromatic, but with lots of touches of colour.
It seems very detailed, but it is painted with wide brushstrokes.
So today I am painting and drawing three studies of this painting, to try to learn a little bit from Alfred Sisley: a very quick sketch with gouache, a drawing with ink and a drawing with coloured pencils.
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) was born in Paris to British parents. He joined the Impressionists group, and his technique is close to that of Pissarro and Monet. His favourite subject was landscapes.
Study 1 Sketch with gouache
a black pencil
brush (size 18)
light brown paper (I used 160 g/m2 or 98 lb).
Study 2 Ink drawing
a photocopy, with very low contrast, of the sketch done for the third study (the first step, before using coloured pencils)
fountain pen with black ink.
Study 3 Coloured pencils
a pencil (I use 2B)
an eraser and a sharpener
white gouache and brush (size 18)
light brown paper (I used 160 g/m2 or 98 lb).
A quick sketch of a winter landscape with gouache
First, I am painting a quick sketch of Sisley’s snowy winter scene with gouache. It is a technique I sometimes use to familiarize myself with a work of art I don’t know yet. I sketch it as a very small sketch, just a few centimetres across and down. This way, I cannot get sidetracked by the details – I have to see the big picture. In this case, it is a two-step process: first outline the landscape with pencil, then paint it with gouache.
Because it was so small, I had to focus on what was important: the general composition and the colour contrasts.
On another note, I noticed that the original painting is oil on canvas, and that you can see a light brown border all around (frame? wood?). It inspired me to play with colours and to add a warm undertone to the sketch, so I chose a light brown paper for the paper.
The most important take-away was: only three main colours were really necessary to paint this winter scene – light brown, light blue and light pink. Snow is not really white: it has subtle nuances. I played with the different levels of transparency you can create with gouache: sometimes I used more water to create transparent colours that let the brown paper be seen (for the sky, for example), and sometimes I used pure gouache for a more opaque result (snow on the roofs, for example).
In the short video above, this runs from 00:00 to 01:04. It actually took me 40 minutes.
Drawing a winter scene with ink
Since my first study focused on the colours, I thought why not try another study in black and white? So I began drawing the third study (see below) and stopped when the first sketch was finished, with only black pencil on brown paper. I photocopied it with a very low contrast to create a very light, barely there, outline on white paper (I would be lying if I pretended that I did not have to try a few times).
Then all I had to do was to draw the winter landscape with my fountain pen. I drew from left to right (I had learned my lesson from the last time I drew from right to left – and smudged the ink).
You may notice that I sometimes use the fountain pen upside down: I have always done that, for as long as I can remember, since I wrote with a fountain pen as a child at school. I turn my fountain pen when I want to draw tiny details (or write smaller). Not all fountain pens allow you to do that – I prefer fountain pens with a round tip.
The most important take-away was: there were two ways I could draw snow:
by leaving the white paper untouched where I wanted to picture snow
by using tiny dots to draw the outlines of snow.
In the short video above, this runs from 01:40 to 03:03. It actually took me 1 hour.
Drawing a snowy winter scene with coloured pencils
Back to colours and details with this study! This time I drew Sisley’s winter landscape with coloured pencils. Here is my step-by-step process:
First, I drew the entire landscape with black pencil, including all the details I could see.
Then I used a coloured pencil to draw the sky a light blue, but not everywhere: I wanted to keep the transparency and let the warm brown undertones show.
I erased the rest of the sketch. Just as with the self-portraits, I erased lightly so that the outline could still be seen, but no harsh construction lines.
In the next step I drew the snow with a white pencil.
Then I drew all the details with coloured pencils. I was tempted to finish here, but then thought I could add a sixth step.
I was not fully satisfied with the contrast between the white snow and the rest of the drawing, so in the final step I added white highlights of opaque gouache where the snow was whitest.
In the short video above, the first sketch runs from 01:05 to 01:40, the sketch with ink from 01:40 to 03:04 and the sketch with coloured pencils from 03:04 to 4:06. It actually took me 2 hours.
How to draw snow: techniques I experimented with
And voilà! Three studies of Sisley’s painting helped me explore the difficult question of how to draw snow. Not that I consider myself a specialist now, especially if you remember that Sisley and Monet continued to draw winter scenes for decades after their first try! Here is what I experimented with today:
painting white snow with greys, browns, blues and pinks
painting snow with layers of transparent and opaque gouache
drawing snow by letting the white paper show through
drawing snow with a dotted outline
accentuating the contrast between the bright snow and the landscape with gouache accents.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. As always, I do not pretend to be a teacher, a seasoned artist or an expert in anything. I am just a very motivated learner who finds a deep joy in a regular art practice.
If you liked this post, you will almost certainly like some of these other landscapes. Enjoy!