Introduction: Snow Hand

About: Artist in Residence at Pier 9, currently exploring a vast array of new tools with which to injure myself.

Built in London during a rare bout of heavy snow, this snow sculpture was a one-man effort that took roughly six hours to complete. It was built entirely out of snow, without any internal supports. No tools were used except for a small chair a passerby lent me so that I could reach the fingernails more easily.

Here are a few pieces of advice on snow sculpture in general and a guide to how I made this giant snow hand.

Disclaimer: Some of these photos are from my previous snow sculpture projects. One of them has been digitally edited. Hopefully it's fairly obvious which one.

Step 1: Health and Safety

Warning! Snow is cold. Places with lots of snow are often cold. By standing in a place with lots of snow and playing with snow, you may also become cold. Wrap yourself up thoroughly (with waterproof trousers if possible) and be aware of signs of hypothermia.

Keep an eye out for:
  • Shivering
  • Numbness or tingling of your extremities and face
  • An increased sense of clumsiness, confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Drowsiness or fatigue

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself, go inside and warm up for a bit before carrying on with your sculpture. If you notice them in anyone else, consider slitting open their belly like a tauntaun's and climbing inside for warmth until help arrives.

Avoid building your snow sculptures on large frozen bodies of water or in places prone to avalanches.

Step 2: Think About What You'd Like to Sculpt

  • How much time you have
  • How much snow you have
  • How many people you have to help you

Sketch some ideas or even rough them out with a blob of plasticine. One advantage of sculpting a hand was that I had a convenient model to refer to throughout the day.

Remember that your sculpture will need a wide base and should, ideally, get narrower as it gets taller. Try not to pick any design that will be prone to falling over or snapping under its own weight.

Be sure to have a quick test of the available snow to check that it is actually sculptable. There's nothing more frustrating than planning out an elaborate sculpture, hiking to the perfect building spot, then finding that the two-day-old snow is too grainy and dry to pack into lumps.

Step 3: Arrange Transport to Your Building Spot

A handy two-person sledge can be improvised from wooden beams, a recycling box and old rope.

Step 4: Making Big Mounds of Snow Quickly

To quickly accumulate an impressive and sculptable pile of snow, you'll need to roll some big snowballs.

Start by kneeling in the snow (this is where the waterproof trousers come in handy) and scooping together a 40cm-wide hemisphere of snow on the ground. Pack it firmly together.

Make a second hemisphere the same size as the first.

Roll the two hemispheres onto their sides and stick them together. Use some wet snow as glue and pat down the seam. You'll now have a ball of snow suitable for rolling.

Roll the snowball around, picking up snow (and mud and grass and dog faeces) as you go. If it starts to become cylindrical rather than spherical, roll it on its other axis.

Keep rolling as long as you comfortably can, then add it to your snow pile wherever you wish to build your sculpture.

Step 5: Starting With a Basic Shape

It's easiest to think about most sculptures as a series of snowballs of different sizes glued together.

The snow hand started as three medium-sized snowballs packed next to each other to make a stable base. I then filled in the gaps with smaller snowballs and packed it together with loose snow.

Once I had a strong base built, I added a ramp (also made of snow) to allow me to roll more snow up onto it from ground level. Everything above this second layer was made from snowballs small enough that I could lift them easily without using a ramp.

I find that the hardest stage of any sculpture is quite early on, when you have a large lump of raw material and you need to somehow make it roughly correspond to the same shape you have in your head. You may find that you spend a few hours fine tuning a bunch of glued-together snowballs before you get the right shape. Even then, it's entirely possible that it won't look like anything recognisable to anybody else. Don't be discouraged by this; as long as you can see what the eventual sculpture will look like, that's all that matters. It's worth taking the time to get this stage right.

With the rough palm finished, I carved some palmar creases to help me picture the final sculpture as early as possible. I started making finger stumps by rolling separate cylinders of snow and packing them in place with loose snow.

Step 6: Stumps

As well as adding more finger stumps (a.k.a. proximal phalanges), I narrowed the wrist and added more definition to the base of the palm (thenar and hypothenar eminences).

While building, it doesn't matter if the snow is very dirty; any overly filthy patches can always be covered with fresh snow later.

The whole of this sculpture was built on a gentle slant. This slant suddenly increased slightly when a crack formed across the wrist and the entire hand subsided a few degrees. I used a thin wedge of snow to support the hand from behind so that this didn't happen again (see final pictures).

Step 7: Extending the Fingers

I extended the fingers phalanx by phalanx, rolling cylinders of snow and adding them on one at a time.

If you're going to build the middle finger of a giant hand before all of the other ones, carefully consider which way the hand is pointing...

Step 8: Completing the Fingers

The thumb underwent a lot of resculpting until I was happy with its shape. One perk of using snow as a sculpture medium is that you can add to and subtract from it as much as you want (unlike, say, a block of ice from which you can only subtract). The downside of this is that it's easy to getted bogged down in perfecting the details when you don't need to get them right first time.

I wasn't confident that the palm would support my full weight, so I resisted the temptation to climb onto it to sculpt the fingertips and fingernails. I stood on a chair, but large snowballs also make handy stepladders.

Because this sculpture took several hours to complete on a cold and windy day, the lower parts were frozen very solid by the time I came adding details to the upper parts. This mean I could have the fingertips and thumptip slightly overhanging into open space without them collapsing.

Step 9: The Finished Sculpture

Once I was happy with how the sculpture looked, I covered up the worst of the muddy patches with fresh snow.

The second image below shows how steeply inclined the entire hand was, as well as the way I used a thin wedge of snow to support it.

I finally gave into temptation and nestled myself into my sculpture's frosty palm for a photograph. No, I didn't change clothes out  in the snow. I just took off my sweater. Perhaps surprisingly, snow sculpture can be very warm work.

Snow Sculpture Speed Contest

First Prize in the
Snow Sculpture Speed Contest