Art takes me to so many unexpected places. I’m a curious sort of artist, and I’m always off searching for ideas and inspirations as different words and phrases pop into my mind. Sometimes it’s music I hear. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s just… words.
So, it’s probably no surprise that this morning I was hearing green words. They came in a cluster, prompting me to stop, drop, and roll with what I was hearing. Lean, Mean, Green Machine. To my surprise, I learned that such a thing actually exists.
Rest assured I have no intention of buying one of these, especially not with the $75,000.00 price tag attached to it. If you’re interested, you can find more about it here.
It’s an intersting aside for today’s post, however, in that, to me, this oversized motorized tricycle looks a bit demonic, and that’s exactly the right word to use when it comes to the color green, at least where art is concerned.
Green is mean. I’m not sure about lean, but it’s definitely mean.
When I first began painting — back in the days when I struggled with watercolors — I was warned about green. I scoffed a bit. Green? I like green. Why should I be afraid of it?
I learned all too soon, and it wasn’t long until — like so many artists before me — I, too, came to fear green. I took out my frustrations one night with a green abstract, and that made me feel better, but it didn’t help me resolve the problems of how to successfully use green in painting. For an aspiring landscape painter, that was a serious problem.
A lot of what we learn in art comes through experience, of course. Learning to handle green is no exception. One reason it’s problematic, however, is that green is a catch-all color. There are many, many different varieties of green. So how do we know which green to choose? Another consideration is that green is a secondary color. It’s one we can mix for ourselves rather than buy, and many art instructors recommend doing just that. But mixing green only complicates matters more, because saying “mix blue and yellow” isn’t very specific. Which blue? Which yellow? Cool ones? Warm ones? One of each?
We can make ourselves a bit crazy with greens. All the same, though, it’s part of the process, and at some point we have to figure out what greens we like — kale, turnip greens, spinach — oh, wait! Different greens. Yes, I do love the leafy, green vegetable kind, but let’s get back to art.
A few years ago I patiently pulled out all my blues and all my yellows. I mixed each one with each other one. Some I liked; some I liked a lot less. My favorite was a mixture of cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue. When I recently did a similar exercise as part of my 100-day “Mood and Atmosphere” project, I wasn’t surprised when once again I chose a green mixed from cadmium yellow and ultramarine as my favorite.
Along the way, I have found a few “tube greens” that I like. Olive green is a definite favorite. I like sap green, and soil green, as well.
What I don’t like is viridian. I’m often surprised at how many art instructors have suggested having viridian on a landscape palette. To my view, it’s much too blue to be useful in landscape painting.
Of course, viridian can be mixed with additional yellow to bring it back to the lean, mean, green side, but if we’re going to mix, why buy the viridian?
As I browsed online a bit more, I came across a painting done all in viridian. Seriously? All in viridian? While I wasn’t wild about the painting, it presented viridian in a whole new way. Another of those “Go ahead, I dare you” sort of challenges.
I no longer keep viridian on my landscape palette, but my original Mont Marte set had a fresh tube, so I grabbed it, grabbed a brush, and I set out to create my own “Viridian Only” landscape — a quick little study painted on the reverse side of the canvas page I’d used for my green-making exercises.
No work of art, but I must say that this was a lot of fun to do. Of course I added black and white to come up with different values, and I slapped the paint on quite freely, just trying to create essential shapes of color and tone.
In a somewhat similar fashion to the release I felt when I painted my Demon Green abstract years ago, putting viridian green all across this canvas page was almost cathartic. No, I still don’t like Viridian. No, I won’t be adding it to my palette. Yet in some perverse way, I can appreciate the color a little more now.
Overall, I’ve come to a better understanding of greens and how to use them. In landscape painting, of course, it’s necessary to use a variety of greens — light greens, dark greens, every sort of green in-between. I’m learning that we can create these greens not only by mixing white or black or gray with them, but by combining the different yellows and blues, and by using the different greens we can purchase ready-made.
The important thing — as I saw when I painted a scene of yellow flowers recently — is that we remain consistent with our color family. In that painting, I had cool greens in the background, then used a much warmer green in the foreground. The differences between the two were noticeable — and jarring. That mistake was prompted by the “rule” about using cooler colors in the background and warmer ones for the foreground. It doesn’t work well with greens, obviously. At least not the way I did it.
There is much, much more than can be said about green in painting, and in the final analysis it comes down largely to personal preference, to finding “what works” for us. It can be helpful, though, to know what other artists think of green, how they choose it, and how they use it.
You’ll find a lot of good information in this article from The Artist’s Road: It’s Not Easy Seeing Green. Here, twelve very talented artists share their choices.
For me, I’ll continue to work mostly with the favorites I’ve found: sap green, olive green, and my “personal preference” of cadmium yellow with ultramarine. I hope that the more I mix, the more comfortable I’ll be with creating the right greens in the right values, and keeping them in the right color families.
With luck — and a lot of practice — maybe I’ll someday become a “lean, mean, green-making machine.”