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The Play of Light and Shadow

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

snow scene


These past few weeks I have had the privilege of seeing winter through an artist’s eyes. Because of her guidance, I have begun to appreciate details that I wouldn’t have even noticed before. She’s opened me up to another source for beauty and after the year we’ve all gone through, who doesn’t need some simple beauty in his life?

One of the aspects of the season that I have especially come to love is winter’s light and shadow. The quality of light is different in the winter. It’s less intense, softer and more diffused.  Scientists tell us that the angle of the sun to the earth is lower during the winter months so the light that reaches the earth is not only spread out over a larger area, but also passes through more particulate matter on the way, softening the appearance of the light.  

sunlight reflected on snow


Designers tell us that winter light is beautiful and using it well can create unforgettable winter landscapes. They also tell us that knowing your environment and understanding how to use it to your advantage is as important in the winter landscape as it is in the summer.  

For example, the sun’s lower angles in winter cast longer shadows than are seen in summer. Those longer shadows can become an essential part of a dramatic winter display. In the images below, the shadows pull your eyes into the scene like a path leading you through the woods.

shadow on snow

evergreen shadows

Here, as the shadows dance across the back wall, they create a giant natural mural for the viewer to study.

shadows on wall

Taking advantage of backlighting brings strength to the design, adding depth, highlighting details and emphasizing forms and shapes in the garden. Landscape features set in backlight are mesmerizing. They are alive, vibrant and seem to glow.

backlit grasses



backlit snow








Striking silhouettes dominate the scene when trees, shrubs, grasses or interesting hardscape forms are purposefully set against the backdrop of a winter sky.

silhouettes of trees

silhouette of trees

In a season usually devoid of color,  patches of bare snow can burst into vivid canvases , reflecting the hues of the rising or setting sun. 

rising sun on snow

sun on snow


As you plan your winter landscape, take some time to study the impacts that sun and shadow can make. You'll add an absolutely magical dimension to your view.