Friday, August 1, 2014

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen by Kelsey Hamersley. Acrylic. April 2014.

"She was beautiful but all made of ice: cold, blindingly glittering ice; and yet she was alive, for her eyes stared at Kai like two stars, but neither rest nor peace was to be found in her gaze.
-The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

I painted this as my third assignment for my Illustration Techniques class (Spring 2014). My first two assignments were for the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, (see Project One here and Project Two here) and were created mostly with pen & ink and watercolor, with only a little acrylic. So for the third project I decided to shake things up a bit and try some acrylic, while still keeping with the fairy tale theme. I've only done a couple of fantasy paintings solely in acrylic before, one in late 2012 and another in late 2011, so I figured it was about time! Plus I thought acrylic would lend itself well to painting all that snow.
As for choosing that particular fairy tale to illustrate, well, there was still a lot of hype going on about Frozen at the time (actually, that hype has yet to die down. Fandom is a powerful force).What better time to draw some attention to the original Snow Queen? Plus, after seeing Elsa's dress, I was dying to try my hand at designing my own version of the Snow Queen's dress. I liked the dress in the film, but for the original fairy tale, I've always pictured something a little more traditional, and more...well, frosty. I've also seen a lot of different takes on the Snow Queen before (of course collected on my Pinterest board for the tale) and wanted to share a little bit of my own mental version with the world.

I had such a blast with the details of this painting! The dress's sleeves were painted kind of like a marriage between icicles and tinsel, while the bodice was inspired by the frost that creeps over your windowpanes in the dead of winter (which I grew quite familiar with after this last killer Ohio winter! Behold the evidence). The bodice's edging was intended to look more like shards of ice, and the crown was of course inspired by icicles--those big, fat ones that grow off of chicken coop roofs. (A fine example of how life experiences will make their way into your art.) The staff was less inspired by nature, but I tried to keep the look of thick, clear, smooth ice.

Having finished this painting, I could still be tempted to design some more icy dresses. You can't really have too many of those, right?

Another detail

My initial pencil sketch. 

I didn't spend much time planning with the snow, besides making some rough marks of where the main swirls would be, and I also kept the face pretty simplistic at this point, marking shadows rather than trying to draw every feature (taking some notes from what I was learning in my Portrait Drawing & Painting Class, which I took during the same semester as this class). The dress, too, was pretty vague in the underdrawing.

Previously, when I've done pencil drawings before painting, I've gotten pretty tight with the details, especially with the face, but I got frustrated with how easily that underdrawing would be obscured by the accumulating layers of paint. So this was a little experiment for me, keeping away from the details with her features when I was first starting out. I think her face turned out well, all things considered, and the method worked for me, but I wish that at some point I had stepped away from the painting and practiced drawing some faces until I landed on one that represented the character well, and used that as a reference, rather than simply adjusting what I already had on the painting. I get the feeling my Snow Queen would have turned out quite differently if I'd had that foresight. That being said, the face on the final works for me, and she has a nice, evil glint in her eye.

Initially, the Snow Queen's hand was stretched straight out, as you can see in the pencil drawing. My Illustration Techniques teacher suggested that I move her arm out a bit to make the pose seem a bit less stiff. My art teacher (the one who's been giving me lessons for around 8 years now) suggested that I changed the positioning of the hand that was holding the staff, to make it more feminine. Both pieces of advice really helped lend to the mood of the painting. I don't tend to pay attention to hands as much as I should, but they can communicate a lot!

As an illustrator, I feel like choosing the correct pose is often a struggle for me. This composition, especially, was a challenge--I wanted a dynamic pose, but I also wanted to remain true to the character and to the ultimate message I was trying to get across. The Snow Queen is cold and terrifying. She doesn't need to wave her arms around or strike a particularly threatening pose to get your attention; she can freeze you with a look. That sort of grace is fierce but quiet, so I didn't want to detract from that by forcing the pose into something out of character. 

Choosing this pose also draws back to the heart of the reason why I picked this scene, inspired by the line from The Snow Queen quoted above. It is the moment when Kai first glimpses the Snow Queen, one of the first moments in the fairy tale that truly grabs my attention, and really, one of the most outstanding moments in the tale for meImagine being Kai, gazing out of a frosty windowpane into the wintry night, only to see the snowflakes swarm to life to form the visage of a cold, cold woman, who nods and beckons toward him. (Excuse the fangirl moment. I get excited about fairy tales.) 

Moving on to some pictures of the painting in progress:

During the first stage of the painting, I spent most of my energy establishing the figure, her staff, and her crown. The details of her face were starting to develop here, but her eyes had a bit too much of a weaselly look to them. I had punched in some of the darks in the background, but those developed further later on, to define the shapes of the swirls.

The snow came to being in lots of layers and washes. It did not do what I expected it to do (I'd originally been aiming for something much lighter than the final piece), and looked far too stark when I first started putting those blobs down--like it was hanging in space rather than swarming in a flurry. I had to play around a lot with the acrylic before settling on something that worked, but I can't say I regret the work I spent on the previous layers, because they helped add so much depth to the painting.

On a last note, and as a special little tidbit (as I haven't yet shared this information on any of the other social media sites where I've posted this painting):
For a little while on either side of the Snow Queen's head, I had two splotchy swirls painting, still in progress. My Illustration Techniques teacher noticed that they almost looked like faces and offered up the idea of adding a little more detail to subtly suggest faces, to contribute to the sinister feel. I almost put wolves in, but then remembered the introduction to The Snow Queen (you can read it here), where a bunch of hobgoblins causing mischief drop a magic mirror, which shatters and, ultimately, starts Kai off on his journey. What better subjects to choose? I got really excited about this feature of the painting, which was one of the final touches I made on the painting. It took some doing to keep the goblins from being too obvious, but I think the final version works at being snow swirls that hint at being evil minions. (There's another, faint one on the right side of the staff right above her hand.) And even if nobody else notices, it makes me ridiculously happy.

Here's the final version again:


  1. I love how "moving" the snow looks- and all the blues and blacks keep the tone dangerously frigid. Gah- I'm jealous of your painting skills! ^^

    1. Thanks! ^_^ I had a terrible time with snow at first, so I'm glad it finally turned out well. :)

  2. Ahh! Love those hobgoblins hovering over her shoulders :) Cool, spooky touch!

  3. Hi, I just found your blog randomly. And may I just say, this is amazing. Captured perfectly. All of your work is so beautiful!

    1. Hi! Thanks so much for taking the time to check out my art. ^_^ I like your artwork--especially all the Frozen fandom. :D