The trouble with green
July 2, 2013
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.