Yesterday, Gale Courtney of Manson, WA, USA wrote, “I am not happy trying to mix greens and want to know the secret! Your twice-weekly letters make me scurry out to my studio and begin to paint — except for trees, grasses and leprechauns.”
Thanks, Gale. “Green” is a wide range of hues common in nature that have been predestined to make painters turn to drink. To make matters worse, green suffers from long-standing literary baggage; green trees, green grass, green with envy, etc. These sorts of clichés can colour our greens greener than they actually are. A good way to overcome green literature is to try to paint the sunlit and then the shaded part of any number of green leaves.
The first law of green is observation. You need to look long and hard at that green thing and try to figure out its makeup in pigment. A broad hint — not to be taken as universal — in nature, greens are often loaded with orange. A good rule is not to squeeze out any green without squeezing out a decent dollop of orange.
Unless your work warrants it, or you happen to be actually painting leprechauns, emerald, Phthalo green and all the outrageous “Kelly” greens should be taken down to the bottom of the garden and given to the fairies. A duller green such as sap green, Jenkins green, Olive green deep or Chromium oxide green should be front and center on your palette. Further, excellent greens can be mixed using various yellows and blues. Like a lot of things, you need to keep looking and doing to get the hang of it.
Purples and roses such as Ultramarine violet and Permanent red violet light are excellent neutralizers of loud greens. When used neat in the same stroke with a loud green they provide beguiling colour excitement. The great colourist Merlin Enabnit used to call this effect “razzle-dazzle.”
Many instructors will point you to the colour theory systems of Albert H. Munsell (1858-1918), Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1952), or Josef Albers (1888-1976). Theirs is fascinating and highly valuable material, but some of the best colourists I ever met knew nothing about these guys until I started dropping their names. The art of colour mixing is mainly a function of temperament and patience.
PS: “There is a logic of colors, and it is with this alone, and not with the logic of the brain, that the painter should conform.” (Paul Cezanne)
Esoterica: “Chromophobia” is not just a 2005 film featuring the Fiennes family, it’s actually a fear of colour manifested in some people and most problematical when found in artists. I first became aware of it in art school when I heard students and instructors say they “didn’t like red,” etc. Green, it turned out, was the most offensive. For various reasons, some of us hold prejudices about certain colours and these prejudices may impede our use of them. Once identified as a prejudice, a new and often exciting learning curve can begin. Even with green.
by Tony van Hasselt, East Boothbay, ME, USA
I am a watercolorist and in my workshops always suggest students start their mix with one of the warm colors, then dip into almost any green, even the dreaded Phthalo and slowly add it to that warm mix. Of course, the advantage of orange is that it contains red and therefore neutralizes as well as warms those greens. I also like to use “inducted color,” the complementary color induced by a neighboring area. It is fun to sneak in some warm purples here and there. Best advice? When the easel is in grass, look down and observe those warm and slightly neutralized greens.
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Living with greenophopbia
by Alison Nicholls, Port Chester, NY, USA
I’ve always assumed my dislike of green was thanks to growing up mostly in the UK, where everything is ridiculously green due to the amount of rain. My feelings were compounded by moving to Africa and discovering a love of deserts. Returning from Botswana to England on vacation, I’d be completely overwhelmed with the greens. “Just too much green” my husband and I would say to each other as we drove around the country. So I’m glad to see I’m not the only one with this feeling. However, I have found a solution. I limit my portfolio to African peoples and wildlife, which often allows me to use minimal amounts of green and excessive amounts of orange, red and purple. Any green in my work is usually just yellow overlaid with blue — but that’s an advantage of painting in transparent media!
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On the green
by Robert Wade, Australia
These days much of my work is commissioned from golf clubs. How to handle all the green stuff? Never use tube greens — mix from blues and yellows (e.g., Cobalt and Raw Sienna, French Ultra and Raw Umber, etc.) Vary the greens in hue and intensity, beware of pretty greens, keep the painting looking natural. Always drop in a bit of red somewhere in the work — red sweaters, pants, golf bags, caps or whatever, it does not have to be big, but that bit of the complementary of green has a wondrous way of muting the plethora of green on your paper.
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Mixing with the Deity
by Merv Richardson, Barrie, ON, Canada
Commercially ready greens just don`t give me what I want, and as a consequence my palette contains not one. I mix all my greens from the lovely variety of yellows and cool/warm blue combinations. I’ve also found that too few of my students have a good understanding of how to mix their own greens, and therefore rely heavily on what they can buy. These same folks very often comment to me about how unhappy they are with the results in their paintings. I once made this comment to a class: “There are no greens in nature that God didn’t make from His choices of yellows and blues. Did He not do a fantastic job?
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Safe, but sorry
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Why do artists fear green? You’ve added to their anxiety here, Robert. Even the most intense ‘screaming’ greens can easily be employed if you use intense purples, magentas and oranges. The color I love to use with bright greens is cadmium orange light which is a wonderful orangey gold tone. Using more neutral greens punches up the bright greens even more. Distant greens are easily blued up to create wonderful atmospheric perspective effects. I’m tired of seeing dull landscapes with nothing but dull browny and gray greens. It’s safe, but sorry. These purist painters will actually tell you that their boring greens are ‘realistic’ as justification. I say they should come out to Tennessee in May and tell me their boring palette matches the exciting spring greens I see in the landscape!
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Black as a basis for green
by Joanne Gervais, Kingston, ON, Canada
Not well known, and not mentioned in the article, are the lovely greens that occur when black is mixed with yellow (I usually use Ivory, but Carbon and other blacks can be used). A bonus for landscapers is that the greens tend to be very natural looking. Be stingy with the black as it is a very dominant colour when mixing with the yellows. Create a sample colour chart using various yellows including yellow ochre, Hansa, etc. Adding a touch of burnt sienna, transparent red oxide, oranges, etc. to the mix warms the green and “greys” it a bit. As mentioned in Robert’s earlier article, practice in colour mixing is absolutely mandatory in order to understand colour and to have the ability to mix any color on demand. Happy mixing and may you discover many a new useful colour!
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by Ray Steiner, Lakebay, WA, USA
The challenges of green(s) must be met with a different approach, in my opinion. Our northwest forests are mixes of species, deciduous and conifer, and the variance of hues in the foliage is remarkable. Many days are plein air experience days and that means we are out-of-doors in gray-overcast light conditions, which produces the practical need for warm- and cool-olives opaqued with titanium white (Gesso if working in acrylics). So the ancient Mars Black mixture with a cadmium yellow in serial dilutions brings the “olive base color” and then, depending on the day’s grayness, the proportions of white are “strung-out” in a parallel series of color strings. The warming with alizarin crimson and cooling with ultramarine blue occurs as the painting progresses.
Out of the tube Hooker’s green and occasionally Phthalo-yellow green (in minute amounts) do set-up a palette of “green options” that works for me.
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Temperature, not color
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I love color and I use a lot of green when I am plein air painting… after all, Indiana, where I live, turns and often stays pretty green through much of the warmer months of the year! One simple way of thinking has helped me. I try to think in terms of temperature, so I work with a warm and a cool green. I love Gamblin’s Radiant Cadmium light green and then I normally use Viridian, however I seldom use either hue straight out of the tube. A basic understanding of the color wheel and a good understanding of values will help with any painter’s problems also.
Another tip I give my students is that people’s visual understanding will lead them to interpret hues as being the color that is normally associated with the object they are viewing. For example, trees are normally thought of as having green leaves in the summer…thus even if an artist pushes the blues or lavender hues in the shadow areas of foliage the tree is still viewed as being “green.”
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Colour prejudice wired in
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, Michigan, USA
I too am baffled by “I don’t like that color” or “I like blue” as a basis for commenting about paintings. I even hear it from friends who are artists and would demand more in answers from their students. I think it’s based on our wiring and how our perceptual fields operate. Visual data is ranked and sorted in particular orders — motion mostly first (see the tiger coming), and then pattern and color and dimension and, and, and … Artists have the work cut out for them as we need to interrupt the pre-cognitive moment, review and resort continuously to keep things on track.
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by Tom Irvine, Gravenhurst, ON, Canada
Approximately 6% of North American males are red/green colorblind and some of us are artists. I keep track of color by listening to people, asking a lot of questions and making notes as well as reading labels on my paint tubes so I can make those who see color differently happy. I will add color I know is there even if I can’t see it just so you can. I had a good artist friend who said don’t worry about it, you’re the artist, paint whatever colors you want. For the most part I have adapted to seeing color differently and have a system to work things out.
It is interesting that since I have to ask a lot of questions about what color things are I find that there is considerable disagreement about color even amongst those who feel they see color the way it really is. Often I disagree and ask someone else to even out the odds. I make it a point not to discuss colors by names with those who speak another color language to avoid arguments.
I am able to match colors reasonably well once I know the basic color. Nature’s colors aren’t so much an issue since I have them memorized and a lot of things I can figure out by just knowing (by listening) what other people see.
I know, of course, that there is a red hard contact lens worn in one eye which can correct color vision allowing me to pass all the color tests but it is uncomfortable to wear and causes more confusion than solutions with color language, so I dispensed with that. I was advised it was not available in a soft lens and would not work in a set of glasses with one red lens. I would be interested in your thoughts, and anyone else’s, in terms of coping with color-blindness as an artist.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Michel St. Hilaire of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “Green is tricky. My gallery in Calgary, Alberta tells me greens never sell.”
And also Nuala Farrelly who wrote, “I was taught the Color Theory of Itten. It changed my whole way of seeing the world and mixing Color.
(RG note) Thanks Nuala. Johannes Itten (1888-1867) was a colour theorist associated with the Bauhaus in Germany. He’s often studied along with the three mentioned in my letter.
Enjoy the past comments below for The trouble with green…