Mixed Greens

Ernest Lawson, "Spring" (detail), 1900

A few days of warm weather this week have transformed Vermont's landscape from dun and brown to brilliant emerald. In a week or two, trees and grass will settle into their summer greens, dense and unvarying, until cooler weather in August tips them into yellow, orange, and back to winter browns again.

But for now, it's like Oz around here, with greens so bright and clean they are almost fluorescent. Like the days of autumn color, this time of spring green, accompanied by bright tulips and blossoming trees, is almost painful in its shortness and beauty.

Trying to paint this wide variety of greens is, to say the least, challenging. Rather than have my starting point be an assortment of green pigments on my palette (for example, sap, viridian, hookers or cobalt green), I prefer to mix greens from a deep bench of yellows and blues. 

A "mileage chart" of greens.

On the top: Naples Yellow, Aureolin, Raw Siena, Indian Red, Burnt Siena, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson.

On the left: Viridian Green, Hooker's Green, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Prussian Blue

Learning to mix colors so that you can predict the result takes practice, and creating greens is no exception. The exercise above is a handy reference that shows what greens result from mixing a blue or tube green on the left with a pigment on the top (read down and over, just like a mileage chart.)

To make one for yourself in oil or watercolor, pour yourself a glass of wine, draw a grid, paint and label colors on the left and top, and start mixing.

Gustave Klimt, "Landscape in Schonbrunn", 1916

Then take your color chart outside, and compare your swatches to what's around you. 

In our mind's eye, we think of trees and grass as green, but looking with a painter's eye, we see the summer landscape as so much more: yellows, oranges, reds, violets, blues.

Light and shadow push nature's green all around the color wheel. 

Wet-in-wet watercolor mixes

Cezanne, "La Montagne St. Victoire" (detail), 1887

Each yellow and each blue you use will bring something different to a mixed green.

Add in a full range of earth colors and reds to darken, deepen, or deaden, and the possibilities are endless.

But pigments and color mixing are just the starting points.

Susan Abbott, "Color Study", watercolor

Painting is, among other things, about relationships: line to shape, shape to value, value to color, color to color.

Yellow-greens are affected by neighboring violets, blue-greens by adjacent reds. 

Reflected lights pick up nearby colors.

Every brushstroke communicates something about dark and light, warm and cool, and color. Greens play all of these roles.

Abbott, "Looking towards Vineyards, Provence", watercolor


When I paint, I see with my right brain that the world is a much more kaleidoscopic,  much less predictably and uniformly green place than my left brain would have me believe.

If I'm looking closely, I may need every pigment on my palette to render a tree. I've learned, over time, that a tube of "Foliage Green" paint isn't going to do me much good, given the wide, wild world  of color waiting out there.

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