Is Snow White? Maybe, or Maybe Not.

Is Snow White? Maybe, or Maybe Not.

John Henry Twachtman, Winter in Cincinnati Konstantin Yuon, The Winter. Rostov the Great, 1906 Armand Guillamin, La Place Valhubert, 1875 Camille Pissarro, The Outer Boulevards, Snow Effect, 1879 George Gardner Symons, River in Winter Claude Monet, Vetheuil in Winter, 1879

The winter landscape paintings above were made by Impressionist and Post Impressionist artists from Europe and the United States. The color blocks at the right of each painting are just some of the colors of paint that each artist used to portray snow.

Why didn't they just use white paint to depict snow? Snow is white. Unless a dog passed by or muddy feet walked through, snow is white.

There’s a scientific reason that snow is white. Light is scattered and bounces off the ice crystals in the snow. The reflected light includes all the colors, which, together, look white.  While your red sweater absorbs all colors except red and reflects red back out for people to see and a yellow tennis ball absorbs all colors except yellow and reflects yellow back out for people to see, snow reflects all colors. And all the colors of light add up to white.

But snow can also look blue or purple or even pink depending on how the sunlight hits it and whether it is in shadow. Some artists try to avoid using pure white paint in their paintings entirely and instead think about what colors they actually see instead of what colors they expect to see. Mixing a little white with other colors might look more like the snow that they see.

Take a look at the snow in these paintings. What colors do you see? Is snow always the same color? Now get out your paintbrush, choose colors, and paint your own picture of snow.

Learn more about the science of snow: