For years I’ve struggled to illustrate the experience of skiing truly deep, blower snow. It’s not that hard to take a decent photo of someone skiing powder, and it’s even easier to fake a decent photo that looks like someone is skiing powder. But from my perspective as an illustrator, it’s damn near impossible to truly capture how it feels to float through feet of fresh billowing snow.
Part of it is that skiing powder is a more tactile experience than a visual one. I don’t care how skiing pow looks, I care how it feels. I love the constant rush of snow against my thighs and torso, how it jets up across my arms when I lean into a turn, finding the sweet spot as it cascades up under my chin but doesn’t quite fill my field of view. I ski pow with my whole body, not just with my skis. And I love how it sounds, a muffled quiet that magnifies the tiny friction of millions of flakes dancing past, flowing together under my skis, against my outerwear, blasting up through each turn and hanging in a cloud behind me. Skiing powder is at the same time a very simple, and very profound experience. And that makes it hard to draw.
You can tell it's not a marketing turn because he's not even turning.
My partner gave me the idea for the arc of this comic weeks ago, and it’s been sloshing around my mind ever since. It nails the “simple” side of skiing deep snow, but it felt somehow lacking. The idea lent itself to a woodcut style of art. Simple consistent silhouettes, no colors, no detail. Deep days make me feel like I live in a similar stylized world, devoid of anything but a few trees and my tracks. But I didn’t just want to follow my usual process and make something digital and then tweak it until it looked like a woodblock print. That feels too much like faking a pow shot for Instagram when the conditions are more like glorified dust on crust.
I have no problem with skiers riding through their own hockey-stop cloud of snow and proclaiming how deep things are, and I have no problem with digital artists doing their best to imitate the effects of traditional techniques. But I know how different skiing real pow feels from making mediocre snow look deep, and I wanted this to feel the same.
So I dug some wood carving tools out of the garage, watched some youtube videos, and started carving. It’s a lot harder than cranking out something digital and less pretty. A lot of the time working digitally I’m working to add style and character so that my work doesn’t feel sterile, too crisp. With the woodblock I’m fighting in the opposite direction, trying to bring order to the piece as it chips and flakes beneath my chisel. And that’s how skiing pow feels to me. It’s not pretty, it doesn’t look perfect, but the sensation, the process is one of my favorite things in the world.
A lot of time, creating illustrations for newschoolers feels like I’m stringing together a line of fun side hits on a bluebird day at the resort. They’re quick, hopefully clever, and I’ve got them on lock. There’s no real risk: digest them, maybe chuckle, and move on. But sometimes I want to break trail for four hours just to ski two short runs. Sometimes I want to worry less about making sure that the shot looks perfect for the ‘gram, and instead I want to dive into a cloud of snow crystals, unsure of when I’ll come up for air.
My hands hurt, this carving isn’t turning out how I imagined, and it won’t be done by my deadline. And that’s ok, that’s sort of the point. It won’t look as good as the digital version I completed days ago. But the photos from the truly deep days, the days where skiing really feels like magic, never come out quite as well as the ones taken on carefully farmed road cuts above the parking lot. This one isn’t a marketing turn, this one isn’t just for my audience, it’s for me too.