11 Questions for Snow Artist Simon Beck

Icebreaker / Icebreaker

Snow angels and snowmen are fun to make, but they’re not exactly sophisticated. Simon Beck’s intricate snow art, on the other hand, is incredible—especially considering he creates his pieces by walking, without being able to see what he’s doing from above. In the decade since he started, Beck has created 175 snow drawings (and, this year, started making drawings on the beach). “You just get better the more you do it, like anything else,” he says. We chatted with Beck at the launch of his new line with Icebreaker clothing—which he told us came about because “I wanted to show people that the environment is really beautiful and it’s worth preserving”—to find out the tricks of his trade and how we can take our snow art to the next level.

How do you get started on a piece of snow art?

The way you do a snow drawing is you get a photograph, send it over the internet, print it out, and trace the photograph into a type of cartoon. You then look at the cartoon, and think about how you’re going to draw it [in the snow]. I draw some lines in green, which are the lines that I draw first. Once I’ve got those actually drawn, by using a combination of distance management and pace counting and compass barriers, I’ve then got enough points accurately measured that I can draw the rest of it in my mind’s eye, just by walking in the snow here and there.

What are the ideal conditions for you to work in, and where’s the best place to create snow art?

A frozen lake, because they’re very level, covered in about 8 inches of soft, powdery snow, with no wind, and very firm underneath the powdery snow. So you’re not exerting too much energy, and you can make a nice big drawing before you get tired. In practice, you can work so hard that you can’t continue, which in good conditions takes about 11 hours. In the extreme in soft snow, I’ll go a half a meter even wearing snowshoes. I’ll exhaust after two and a half hours. And the other extreme is a 12-hour day. I’ve never done more than 12 hours.

Normally we check the safety of the ice—you work at where you think the ice is weakest, near the inflow or the outflow, and you try and break it. You just try to break it and jump up and down. It’s hard to break even if one side is already broken. Around the edge you can find the weak spots and, of course, if there’s been an avalanche, that can damage the ice as well, so you look at signs like that. But that’s one of the safety issues, the safety of the ice. You can’t be too careful.

How do you prepare to go out and make a piece of art?

Much like doing an endurance athletic event, you make sure you eat the right stuff—eat a massive amount of complex carbohydrates and take sweet things up with you to eat when you start getting tired out in the field. At the end of the day, when you get a drawing nearly finished, you get a sense of how tired you’re feeling, and will you be able to push on and finish and still have enough left in you to get home safely. When you get tired, you can run out of steam very suddenly and it’s quite frightening sometimes. So you’ve got to have emergency clothing and emergency food—just bars of chocolate to eat, just what you need to get back.

I know you sometimes use snowshoes, but what do you wear? And when you’re out there, how do you make sure you’re OK, and that your feet don’t hurt?

Essentially, you need to wear the correct socks and the correct footwear. But once you’ve found the right combination of socks and footwear, they should work every time. Occasionally, I’ll have to quit ‘cause I have a blister. But it doesn’t happen very often—the Icebreaker Gear is really good because it still keeps you warm even when it’s wet. That’s the whole point of wool. And the Keen boots I’ve been using recently are an improvement on the leather boots I was using before.

In snowshoes, the feet are sort of locked down into the snow. It’s not like walking. It’s more like the movements in the knee, and your ankles aren’t really moving a great deal. It’s practice as well. For a 56 year old, I’m in good shape, but when you’re 50 or 60 your body starts to complain, especially when you do as much activity as I do. So yeah, that’s part of the rationale of doing snow drawing—it’s less strain on your body than running and even walking. It’s a good workout while putting very little impact on your body.

What kind of compass do you use do this?

I use a combination of a baseplate compass and a prismatic compass. You turn the dial to the lines on the north of the map, hold it against your body, and line up the north lines on the dial with the needle. That’s the one-two-three system. So that’s how a baseplate compass works. What you’re doing, really, is simplifying a map down to two lines: one line pointing to where you’re going and one line pointing north. You then reproduce those two lines on your compass. Then, by turning the dial, you get the lines up to a right angle. Then when you do this line up with the needle, you’re just orienting [to a] map, which means the directions correspond. Anyway, a prismatic compass—you look for it, and there’s a prism there. So you can see what you’re looking at, and the prism also means you’re looking down on the numbers spinning around on your compass, which tells you the direction you’re looking at. You can make much more accurate bearings using this, and it’s much easier, as well.

Setting out these drawings is just mapmaking in reverse. You start a map on the ground using orienteering techniques.

What’s your formula? How many paces equals a certain distance?

Sixty double paces is 100 meters, fairly accurately. If you walk in a slightly exaggerated pace, it’ll be fairly accurate. Sixty double paces will be 100 meters. Not that it matters—provided 60 paces here and 60 paces there, you might get a slightly scaled down version of your drawing—but it’ll still be accurate.

This is not done at a run. The measuring is done carefully, at walking speed. It just wouldn’t be accurate to jog and try to count your paces.

How many pieces do you do in a given winter? I imagine it takes kind of a long time to plan and map everything out.

The typical drawing is about one day’s work outdoors, and between one and two hours of preparation indoors. They’re really standard patterns and shapes. And then the best ones are the fractions, where you use a simple rule again and again at different scales. Once you’ve learned the rule, you’re just sort of following a very short set of instructions. And of course you get better with time.

The beaches I’ve just started to do this year as an experiment. I don’t know whether it’s going to prove to be a waste of time in the long run or not. For what it’s worth, having gotten to do it on the beach again and again—the beach is easier than snow. I’m 56 years old now. A time may come where I’m just not up to doing a decent drawing on the snow. You never know.

Have you ever had a situation where you were working on a drawing and a skier came by and went through it?

Not much, but it seems to be happening more and more often now. Once, this guy just decided to go straight through the drawing. And they just ignored what I’d done. They wouldn’t make a centimeter detour on level ground through a beaten track. I just felt like poking his eyes out. I mean, one of the other guides thought he was being unreasonable as well. I modified the way it was done to make it look like the track was part of the original drawing. But he eventually made another track through the drawing. Sometimes you see a drawing, and literally hundreds of skiers have made the effort to avoid it, and then one person will go through it. It’s a bit annoying.

How long do the snow drawings last? Has there ever been a piece that you’ve been really sad to see disappear?

They gradually fade away but last until the next snowfall, and if I’ve got good photos, it’s no problem. But there was one I did that was 11 times the area of a soccer field. It took 22 hours to make it, and it clouded over two hours before I finished it. And I thought, well, it’s not forecast, hopefully the clouds will go away. It didn’t, so I never got a good picture of it. But even the half-finished picture is still quite good.

Are there any places you haven’t been where you would like to make snow art?

I’ve only been a few places. If you go back here in the mountains, you think, “Look at that lake. Look at those mountains. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic place to make a snow drawing?” But number one would be the White House lawn, actually. If President Obama wanted it, I’m sure it could be arranged.

I’d also love to do the great lawn in Central Park. If the Onassis Reservoir gets frozen enough to do it, that’d be fantastic. The Buckingham Palace gardens, back in England, would be a great place to do it. Yosemite Valley—there’s quite flat areas of grasslands there. There’s no end to the possibilities.

I’m indecisive about which option to pursue next, to try to crowd-source this or that. One day I’ll have to make a decision on what to do next and try to make it happen. It’s frustrating when you get so many things organized and then the winters seem so short when you want to do all these things.

If a total novice wants to create snow art, where should he start?

Wikimedia Commons

The Sierpinski triangle. You draw the original triangle around the edge. Find a middle point on each side, and draw another triangle at the midpoints. So we’ve divided the triangle with four triangles. You then leave the middle one alone, and repeat it on the three other triangles. And that’s called the Sierpinski triangle.

It’s a simple iterative process that anyone can do. You don’t need a compass; all you’ve got to do is walk in a straight line. So you start here, walk in a straight line, count your paces—make it a power of two, so you can divide and halve easily, and then quarter easily. So you walk along here 128 paces and put a rucksack here. [Another] 128 paces, put a rucksack here. And then you walk from this rucksack to that rucksack and count out the number of paces and try to keep the number of paces the same numbers each time. You then use the number of paces to halve it and find the midpoint, and you keep halving it and finding the midpoints here and here, and here and here, and then draw the midpoints. It’s very easily done. I taught a 20-year old—not even a very clever 20-year-old—how to do this in half an hour.

The great thing is, a Sierpinski triangle is an assembly of smaller triangles. It’s perfectly suited for a team of 9 or 10 people. Once you divide up the triangles, 9 people can each do one small triangle to make a big Sierpinski triangle. And it still looks good even when it’s not done very carefully.

You can buy a book of photos of Beck's snow art here.