Making winter picture perfect

John Brannen
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Pictou County painter, photographer focus on best practices for winter scenes

As the brilliant reds, yellows and oranges of fall give way to the white and dark of winter, many photographers and painters pack up the camera and put away the easel. 
But for some artists who practise their craft in the colder months, they find and capture scenes worthy of the title winter wonderland.

The county is full of talented and creative artists and photographers and this is a snapshot of their winter experiences and advice.


At the easel

Dan Munro is one of Pictou County’s most distinguished artists. A native of Gairloch, he’s been surrounded and immersed in nature since the start. His artist statement says it all:

“An artist’s work is a reflection of their personal view of ordinary things, their hidden beauty and lasting impression,” said Munro. ”I believe that one of the greatest rewards of painting is an increased awareness of the world around us and respect for the fragile state of our environment.”

He is self-taught in the fine art of painting, which has been his vocation for over 20 years. His art reveals his familiarity with the love of the Nova Scotia landscape and seacoast.

One of his well-known winter paintings shows what Christmas Eve may have looked like a long time ago in Sherbrooke Village.

“It takes a few days of sketches and looking at photographs to put it all together,” said Munro. “In painting, I like to work from lights to darks and fill in the mediums and highlights in between.”

It’s a technique that has served him well in his other winter paintings since winter scenes are often devoid of bright colours. But the absence of colour doesn’t necessarily make painting easier.

“That’s the challenge,” said Munro. “Snow isn’t just white. It’s grey, misty, textured and reflects the ground and the sky. It all depends on light.”

Light was important in his painting of the MacKay gristmill in Lorne. But equally important was the story behind the painting and the meaning it had for Munro.

“I’d worked for Gordon MacKay at the saw mill as a summer job,” he said. “It was one of those unforgettable times that I cherish. Having a strong connection with your subject is important in painting.”

The potential for winter art is closer than you think. For Munro and others who live in Gairloch and other rural areas, often 30 feet from your home is enough.

“You’ll find spectacular winter scenes at brooks, rivers and waterfalls,” said Munro while cautioning that the scenes may overwhelm a novice painter. “Icy shadows in the forest are always interesting too.”

What’s difficult about winter painting, in contrast to fall or spring is ensuring the light and dark, the values, are present.

“If you can do that, you’ve captured the mood.”

For those just starting out, Munro suggests finding a simple subject, such as a blade of grass or weed peeking through the snow.

“For me personally, I love water colours, especially for winter art. You’re able to create a feeling with what’s called a wet-on-wet technique.”


Photography in focus

Gerry Farrell has been practising medicine for over 40 years but it may have been his start in the profession that gave way to his interest in photography.

“I used to be an X-ray technician and developed the photos myself,” said Farrell. “It started as a hobby but in my later years it’s more of a passion.”

He finds photography and gardening is the right counterbalance to his award-winning work in palliative care in the county.

Farrell notes there are a few helpful hints for any aspiring or expert photographer.

“Always dress properly when heading out to take photos and be sure to look after your gear once outside,” he said. “It’s always a good idea to bring extra batteries just in case.”

As a photographer, he finds that there are numerous spots in the county for capturing dramatic imagery.

“I like the seashore, in particular, Waterside Beach and Caribou Island. My favourite shots are of hay bales, in any season.”

One tool that Farrell has found useful is by switching the photo file from JPEG to RAW, or a combination of both, you can adjust the white balance much easier. With white snow and ice present, the switch can often mean the difference between good and poor quality photos.

Patience, as with most things in life, is crucial to finding the perfect winter shot.

“Sometimes, it means coming back to a location that I think would make a great photo either at daybreak or as the sun sets,” said Farrell. “They’re the golden hours. I rarely take photos midday.”

If you able to, he strongly recommends investing in a tripod.

“It increases the quality of your shot, without a doubt,” said Farrell. “More importantly, read the manual, get familiar with the camera and experiment before the real thing.”

For more information on winter photography, the Scotsburn-Northumberland Amateur Photography Society (SNAPS) will host a meeting on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. in the NRHS Theatre. Farrell will share photos from his recent trip to Iceland.

Got some advice, experiences or favourite painting or photography locations to share? Go to and share your advice in the comment section located under this story.

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn






Organizations: NRHS Theatre

Geographic location: Pictou County, Gairloch, Nova Scotia Sherbrooke Village Lorne Caribou Island Iceland

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