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Revitalize Your Palette by Going Green

Conduct your own experiments with both tubed and mixed greens. Here’s how.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

I once spent a couple weeks in the Central Highlands of Scotland — leading a painting retreat. It was my first time there and, before I went, painter friends warned me to prepare for overwhelming greens. Rather than supplement my oil palette with a number of tubed greens, I took the same six colors that have served me well over the years in both coastal Maine and the desert Southwest (see Cove Grass below). Although I saw more greens in Scotland than I’d seen in my life, I found with my limited palette I could match just about any of them. But I had to work hard, and the painting would have gone faster had I taken a carefully considered selection of tubed greens. Exploring the options in both mixed and tubed greens can make your life easier, whether you paint landscapes, figures, or still lifes.

In Cove Grass (oil on paper, 9×12) I used only mixed greens made from my tried-and-true limited palette of cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, phthalo green and titanium-zinc white. I didn’t use the phthalo green here, but chose to mix my cooler, bluer greens from ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow light plus white. White will cool and dull any color.

Key Roles for Greens

Green is one of the two colors on the color wheel that can be considered either warm or cool; the other color is red. Connect green and red with a line to divide the color wheel in half. One half of the wheel (containing yellow and orange) is considered warm, and the other half (containing blue and violet) is considered cool.

But green can play both sides, making it versatile. For example, if you have a subject consisting of mostly warm colors, a cool green note can serve as a welcome relief to the warmth; in a painting that’s mostly cool, a warm green note can add spice.

Green is a dominant color in the landscape, and it can overwhelm colors that play a smaller role. But when mixed with other colors, especially with its complement (red) and near-complements (red-orange and red-violet), it can provide a variety and richness impossible with green alone. For shadowy greens, I like to mix in a little dioxazine purple; for sunlit greens, I add a little cadmium red or even orange.

Portrait and figure painters can use green to enhance the warmth of fleshtones. A canvas underpainted with a green like terre verte will make flesh colors seem warmer and more alive.

With these swatches I compared greens from Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors. The square at the top of each swatch is the color’s mass tone (the color of the paint applied somewhat thickly); the square in the middle is the color’s undertone (the color of the paint drawn out thinly). A pencil line drawn through the undertone indicates the paint’s transparency. The square at the bottom of each swatch shows a tint of the tube color made by adding titanium-zinc white. Some of these tints are beautiful grays. Note: Some of the tubed colors shown here are hues — pigment mixtures — because the genuine pigments are problematic. For example, emerald green is a hue because the genuine pigment is toxic; the genuine pigment for sap green is fugitive; the genuine pigment for terre verte is inconsistent and difficult to obtain.

Tips on Tubed Greens

Tubed greens run the gamut from warm to cool, light to dark, dull to rich and transparent to opaque. But not all tubed greens are equal. Some, like phthalo green, exhibit a high tinting strength. I compare phthalo colors to nitroglycerine — a speck can be explosive. Viridian, on the other hand, resembles phthalo green. But it has a low tinting strength and disappears quickly in mixtures, making it safer to use, especially for beginners.

Other greens, like cadmium green, are rich, light and opaque; permanent green light looks like a darker ver- sion of cadmium green, but it’s more transparent. (See Tubed Greens, above.) Tubed greens offer a rich range of readymade colors. The temperature and tonal possibilities increase exponentially when you mix them with other colors on your palette (see Cadmium Green Mixtures, below).

I rarely use a tubed green “raw.” Instead, I modify it with other colors to make it more pleasing. Here I’ve taken cadmium green and modified it with red or orange and also added white to create a tint. The temperature, intensity and value of these resulting “greens” change, depending on the proportion of the components. Any of these colors would add welcome variety in a summer field.

Merits of Mixed Greens

With so many greens available from tubed colors, you might wonder why you’d bother to create your own greens from mixtures of yellow and blue. One reason is economy. Mixing your greens means less inventory on your shelf, more mixing room on your palette and, if you’re traveling, a lighter load. I’m actually glad I didn’t take a dozen extra tubes of paint with me to Scotland! With the right yellow and blue, plus other colors to modify the mixtures, you can recreate just about all the tubed colors. A second reason for mixing your greens is color harmony. Incorporating a dominant color into your mixed greens helps you maintain peace among your colors. If you use cerulean blue in the sky, using it as the main color in your greens is a smart move.

When it comes to mixing greens, however, using the right yellow and the right blue is key to getting the right green. Mixed Greens (below) shows the rich variety of greens you can achieve with just a few colors.

Conducting your own experi- ments with both tubed and mixed greens is invaluable. You’ll gain insight and control — making other painters green with envy.

Learning to mix your own greens is rewarding. Here I created a grid with greens mixed from the most common yellows and blues. The top row shows the blues, going left to right from those with more red to those with no red at all. Ivory black may surprise you, but it has a definite blue cast and makes attractive greens. The left column shows the yellows, going top to bottom from one with no red to those with increasing amounts of red. Yellow ochre, an earth color, helps create more neutral greens that you might see in the landscape. The most intense green here is the one made by mixing phthalo blue and cadmium yellow light. These two colors have no red in them to dull the green. The dullest (but still beautiful) greens are the ones in which red exists in one or both of the component colors. The temperature, intensity, and value of these greens depend on the proportion of the components.

A Short History of Green

Until about 1800, very few greens were available to the painter. Among these, terre verte, verdigris and sap green proved to be either dull, toxic or unstable (that is, not lightfast or prone to discoloration when mixed with other pigments). Because of this, Renaissance painters preferred to create their greens by glazing yellow over blue. Of the early green pigments, malachite had the longest run as being bright, stable, and permanent until the creation of pigments such as emerald green, which is poisonous, and its nontoxic successor, viridian. In the 20th century, rich, powerful, organic colors such as phthalocyanine green were invented. Today, many of the earlier unsatisfactory greens have been recreated in nontoxic and stable versions, designated as “hues,” or as mixtures of other pigments.

Tip: Painting Fog

As a landscape painter who paints a lot of fog in Down East Maine, I often turn to green; small strokes of a very pale tint of a cool green (white plus phthalo green) alongside small strokes of a very pale pink (white with permanent alizarin crimson) can mix optically to create a beautiful and impressionistic foggy gray.

Materials

  • SURFACE: 12×16 Ampersand Gessobord with additional gesso
  • OILS: Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors
  • PALETTE: Greens: phthalo green, chromium oxide green, cobalt green, sap green, permanent green light, olive green, green gold, terre verte. Other colors: cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramaine blue, titanium-zinc white.
  • BRUSH: Silver Brush Ltd. Grand Prix No. 4 hog bristle flat
  • OTHER: Kindle Fire HD tablet, No. 6 graphite pencil, painting knife

Demo: Working with Tubed Greens

For this demonstration I decided to use as many tubed greens as I could. For reference material, I chose photos plus a pastel sketch I did of a scene of a Scottish Highlands cottage near Glencoe. I liked this scene because the greens varied greatly with distance, from cooler, grayer greens far away to warmer, orangey greens in the foreground.

1. Studio Setup

In addition to using my pastel sketch and photos for reference, I consulted the aforementioned color chart I’d made of my tubed greens. I was able to choose what greens to use by visually matching swatches on the chart with the greens used in the pastel. I displayed the reference photographs on a digital tablet.

2. Color Map

I photographed the pencil sketch that was on my canvas. Then, on the photographed image, marked where I would use specific tubed greens. Legend: PG=phthalo green, CoG=cobalt green, COG=chromium oxide green, SG=sap green, PGL=permanent green light, OG=olive green, GG=green gold, TV=terre verte.

3. Compositional Sketch

On a 12×16 Ampersand Gessobord to which I’d previously applied an additional layer of gesso for absorbency and texture, I lightly penciled in my design with a No. 6 graphite pencil.

4. Shadow Masses

Before applying greens, I blocked in my shadow masses with a mixture of ultramarine blue and cadmium red light plus white. This gave me a warm violet note for the shadowed rocks. I used two No. 4 hog bristle flats for the entire painting.

5. Blocked-In Greens

Following my color map, I blocked in each of my green shapes. Generally, I followed the principle that distant greens would be cooler and grayer, whereas nearby greens would be warm and orangey, with transitional greens between the background and the foreground. Note that distance also runs vertically; that is, the greens at the mountaintop would also be cooler and grayer than the greens toward the bottom. Except for the very closest green areas,

I added titanium-zinc white to each color to lighten, cool, and gray it. For the top of the mountain, I made a mistake and used cobalt green, which turned out to be too blue. So, I went back over it with a tint of the less-blue chromium oxide green. I didn’t use phthalo green in this step; I was saving it for the sky.

6. Sunlit Areas and Sky

I moved to sunlit areas that weren’t supposed to be green. Then I added pink to the sunlit cliffs (cadmium red light plus white and a touch of ultramarine blue to gray the mixture.) I also added touches of this same pink into the green areas where I saw small amounts of gravelly ground or trail. The cottage and stream I painted with shadowy purples (same mixture as the rock shadows in step 4), cadmium red light and some of the warmer greens such as green gold and olive green. The little clump of firs on the bottom right I painted with cobalt green. The sky is mostly ultramarine blue and white, but in the lower right I used a light tint of phthalo green to warm up that area. This is a trick that I find gives depth to an otherwise “severe clear” sky, as pilots call it.

7. Color Modifications

I continued to modify greens to enhance a feeling of dramatic depth and distance. Because I was trying to use out-of-the-tube greens as much as possible, in most cases, the only modifier I used was white; however, to help with transitions from the area just behind the cottage to the mountains, I laid strokes of warmer greens over the cooler greens and vice versa as needed. In the foreground, I used a painting knife to apply marks of pure, unmodified greens, including olive green, green gold, cadmium green and terre verte. Image 7 shows the completed painting Highland Cottage.

Michey Chesley Johnson is a frequent contributor to Artist’s Magazine and author of Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Paintings to the Next Level. For more information, visit mchesleyjohnson.com.

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