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The trouble with green

July 2, 2013

Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Gale Courtney of Manson, WA, USA wrote, "I am not happy trying to mix greens and want to know the secret! <br>digital photo by Siwon Briki
digital photo by Siwon Briki
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.

Best regards,


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.

Inducted color
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 Southport Sentinel<br>watercolour painting by Tony van Hasselt Southport Sentinel
watercolour painting
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.

There is 1 comment for Inducted color by Tony van Hasselt

From: margaret Kevorkian -- Jul 04, 2013

I don't quite understand what you mean by inducted color - could you explain it a bit more, please? That's a beautiful painting, by the way.

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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 Among the rocks<br>watercolour painting by Alison Nicholls Among the rocks
watercolour painting
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!

There is 1 comment for Living with greenophopbia by Alison Nicholls

From: sue gardner -- Aug 05, 2013

Aha! I thought it was just me driving around here in Derbyshire saying 'arrgh too much green everywhere!' I'm looking forward to Harvestime and Autumn!

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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? Mansfield<br>watercolour painting by Robert Wade Mansfield
watercolour painting
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.

There are 3 comments for On the green by Robert Wade

From: Mike Barr -- Jul 04, 2013

Great advice from one of the world's leading watercolourists - thanks Robert. One of the few artists that can really paint well with green and the Australian greens are wonderful.

From: Michael McDevitt -- Jul 04, 2013

Bob can paint with any color on the wheel. He doesn't need as many mulligans as the rest of us do. ;-)

From: McCluskey -- Jul 06, 2013


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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 Holbrook #3<br>watercolour painting by Merv Richardson Holbrook #3
watercolour painting
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?

There is 1 comment for Mixing with the Deity by Merv Richardson

From: Sharon Wadsworth-Smith -- Jul 05, 2013

So Right Merv, I have been given several tubes of left over acrylics and among them were some greens, hookers, sap and thalo. I tried them for the fun of it and still I return to my mixed greens. Many of my students wonder that I do not include green in my palette and I still adhere to the rules of mixing primaries for the best results and happy surprizes at times.

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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 Untitled<br>pastel painting by Paul deMarrais Untitled
pastel painting
'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!

There are 4 comments for Safe, but sorry by Paul deMarrais

From: Marsha Hamby Savage -- Jul 05, 2013

Paul, you are so darn right! Here in North Georgia we have the most obnoxious greens ... but they are beautiful, if they are used in the right context ... and there are the wonderful complementaries to them. I'm always surprised when a painter with their "palette" does our scenery and it no longer looks Eastern or Southern!

From: Diane Artz Furlong -- Jul 05, 2013

Gorgeous painting, Paul. What fun it is using all those colors and ending up with a beautiful green landscape.

From: Sandra Bos -- Jul 05, 2013

good for you Paul! yes Tn. is very beautiful in all seasons. I hope you are back to making those beautiful soft pastels? I love them!

From: Shirley Fachilla -- Jul 05, 2013

A beautiful painting filled with harmonious color... including, of course, green! And you are so right about spring, Tennessee and green. The vibrant greens here in Tennessee simply sparkle; they are definitely not dull and gray.

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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