Tuesday, 9 July 2013

“GREEN - keep looking and doing to get the hang of it”

The excellent Robert Genn, in his regular newsletter, recently sent me a missive all about painting GREEN.  He suggested avoiding emerald green, Pthalo green and “Kelly” greens (whatever they are) and turn instead to chromium oxide green,  sap green, Kenkins green, Olive deep green….he said:

 “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.”

For once, although I agree with most of what he says,  I had some problems with the first sentence in this statement.  While I do agree that brilliant emerald greens tend to look pretty ghastly in a painting if they are meant to look "real", on the other hand I don’t like this opening sentence.  Just staring hard, and long, will give you very few answers, imho, if you know nothing about pigments, or colour theory, and have preconceived ideas about green. 

look at all the different "local colours" of green we have here, from the cool blue-grey greens in the foregrounds, to the rich dark greens in the distance.  Such variety.

I've added a stripe of emerald green.  Do any of the natural greens in this image look like this?


1.      the real greens in nature, are modified by two things – the “local” colour – ie, some leaves are actually olive green, some are grey-green, some are almost silver, for example  – as in the top photo above


2. they are modified by the type of LIGHT falling onto the surface.  Any colour of leaf will be one shade in sunlight, quite another in shadow.

the sunlight paints some of these leaves with vivid yellow light

If you want to paint your greens realistically, you need to take 1 and 2 very much into account.


3.     It is quite different when you decide to paint something where the colours you use are exaggerated or altered deliberately, to emphasise a particular colour-scheme, temperature, or atmosphere.  My recent series of woodland scenes is a case in point, I altered the greens quite deliberately, to conform to my ideas about cool spring light.

sorry, if you have seen it before!

Paul Gauguin deliberately chose vivid yellows and harsh unnatural greens for this image...but actually, the whole image is rather stylised and therefore somewhat unnatural so he could use whatever colours he wanted, to be in keeping with his vision, and to create the atmosphere he wanted.  They are very unlikely to be the actual greens he saw with the naked eye!

If you want to gain a good understanding of how to tackle green, the place to begin is a good book on colour theory…in particular, the learning about COLOUR TEMPERATURE.  How can you possibly understand how to adjust your greens, without understanding WHY you are adjusting them, and HOW to do so?  I don't intend to write a treatise on green colour theory here, I just wanted to shake things up a little IF you are someone who rather relies on the greens in a set, or you have a tendency to mix up green in a "blue and yellow makes green" kinda way! You need to be asking yourself "WHAT blue/WHAT yellow, and why, and what ELSE can I add to get the result I need?"   If you don't do this all ready, then it is time to pick up some books and LEARN what you are doing.  You might get there by trial and error....but it is much more gratifying to do a bit of learning, and increase your knowledge and understanding.  It puts you right there in the driving seat.  Doesn't mean you cannot take chances, and risks, and go down new roads sometimes, for unexpected results - of course you can - but without the basic foundation, you will just be relying on chance continuously.

  There are brilliant books out there.  And do LOOK at how other artists treat greens, and see how careful they are to reserve the somewhat "false", vivid greens, for small touches and highlights rather than for an overall look.  Here are a few for you to enjoy:

Richard McKinley, a true colour master:

we know those trees are green...but see how he has used SUCH subtle, grey-green colouring for the sunlit parts of them, and kept the more brilliant greens for the rows of plants in the foreground, just touches here and there, really.

how  beautiful are his greens.  See how those tiny touches of turquoise SING against the warmer, olive greens?    And look how much pink there is in the foreground, yet we know it is grasses.  Such a simple subject, such a masterful, surprising, adventurous result, in fact.

I watched Albert Handell doing this tree demo.  He began with watercolour, and worked pastels over the top.  He used lots of blues and greys and purples for the underpainting.  He touched in the greens towards the end of the demo. Just think how it might have looked, if he had sloshed on loads of bright green right from the get go....

Learning about colour, and how it works, is really rather exciting.  I encourage you to send some time reading about it, rather than just looking and doing and HOPING to get the hang of it.   (sorry Mr Genn)!


  1. So well handled. I mean this blog post - you hit the nail on the head.

    No one approach works for every style, and there needs to be a unity of your working methods with your ideas. Fauvist green is a universe at polar opposites from "real" green.

    I watched the Handell vid this month, too. I really liked another vid on You Tube where he speaks in more generalized terms about art theory. Very enlightened.

    Also, what speaks to me about RM's pastel is how he treats the tree foliage as a light sump. Very well observed!

    I love reading your blog, Jackie! May I share this at my On Color workshop?

    1. Casey, I am so glad you enjoyed this, and it would be MY honour if you would share it at your On Color workshop. Thank you very much.

    2. Great post Jackie! You are so right about the type of light, the color temperature is so important.
      Albert Handell and yourself have been favorites of mine for a long time. I work in oils now, but now and again do small sketches in pastel..it's a wonderful medium!

  2. Jackie, again ... wonderful discussion about using green. I also shared it to my Facebook page. You did hit the nail on the head ... as Casey said above! I always enjoy your posts ... so enlightening ... and well written so it is understandable. I know my students receive a lot from you when I post your link. Hope you are doing well!

  3. Great post, Jackie! I just briefly looked, but going to read whole thing later today. Very interesting.

  4. Great examples Jackie. I love reading your blog posts, they are the most educational that I've found on the net - you're always spot on! Thank you.

  5. Loved this post - just brimming with information and good advice. I, too read Mr. Genn's posts...
    Your selected examples are particularly informative! Many thanks for the introduction to these painters.

  6. Great post, Jackie. I guess one could write a whole book on green... Indeed, few pigment greens come even close to what is in nature, if it is a natural look one wants. On the other hand, leaves that are backlit, and therefore have the sunlight shining through them, have this intense green glow (but still, few pigments match even that).

    Looking "long and hard" isn't really the best way to see greens, as it takes about 3 seconds and then the green receptors in the retina are overloaded and the red ones start to kick in, giving a visual greying of the greens. *Not* staring is a better way to see colour. A relaxed look, with moving eyes, will keep the colour vision fresh.

    Realism in all honour, but as you show with the Gauguin and the McKinleys, and your own, the "unreal" colours may be what is needed to make a *painting* -- an artistic statement.

    Then, very few people want a realistically green painting on their wall. It is too green, too much, too real, too overpowering. Most people prefer when the colour is pushed a bit, like McKinley does. We love to be out in the green nature, but indoors it looks "unreal".

    Endlessly fascinating.

    1. what great comments from everyone. Clearly a subject which pushes a lot of buttons. I like what you said about "visual receptors", Charlie, amongst all the rest of the comment, which was terrific, thanks a lot. Thanks everyone in fact.

  7. Really, really useful. Translating it to coloured pencil, which I also use beside pastel, there are about a zillion greens in one box of 150 pencils, many of which look like Creme de Menthe or Chartreuse mixed with neon. I wonder how on earth to use them, or what to choose for realistic looking foliage. Thanks to your post, at least now I understand why my foliage wasn't working. I especially appreciate the examples you chose and your comments with them; it gave a great reference point, useful for both pastel and pencils. I had not looked at McKinley's work the way you pointed it out, so thank you!


please feel free to leave me a message