The Problem with Green, Part 2


This image shows the three secondary colors placed next to each other, compared to the three primaries.

In last week’s blog, I split Malinda Wiesner’s question concerning the use of green into two parts. In part 1, my advice was to acquire as many “mixed pigment” green pastels as possible for inclusion in your palette, avoiding the harsh raw green pigments like Viridian and Phthalo. This week, the discussion continues with a few more tips that I hope prove helpful when dealing with the issue of green in landscape painting.

Whenever color is concerned, it’s best to begin with the color wheel. By studying the relationships of individual colors and how they interact with each other, we develop a better understanding of why certain colors work when placed together. This is a powerful tool in choosing what to place in a painting. Nature works. It shares an atmospheric relationship and a light source that creates the natural appearance we accept. Our paintings, on the other hand, are created “artificially” with pigments on a flat surface. We have to create the illusion of reality and harmony.

Science has shown us that light is made up of all color. Its primary colors, those that are the root of all the others, are the secondary colors of paint—that’s another topic to expand on at a later date. For now, just remember that light is an additive synthesis. It gets lighter and brighter as it’s mixed. Pigment, on the other hand, is a subtractive synthesis. It gets darker and weaker when mixed. The three primaries of pigment color, from which all the other colors are derived, are yellow, red and blue. They share no relationship until mixed. When mixed, they create what is referred to as the secondary colors: orange, violet and green. These secondary colors share a common thread. Any combination of them completes the triad of color, creating natural harmony.

The theory of simultaneous contrast also plays a big part in why certain colors work better in relationship to one another (see my July 30, 2007 blog post for more). This visual phenomenon teaches us that everything is affected conversely according to what it is next to. For example, things look lighter when placed against dark, and warmer when placed against a cool. This is very useful when confronting green and helps to explain why one green pigment is never best for all situations.

Understanding these color theories is empowering but it still comes down to what is placed on your painting. Make a mark and then another. As the surface becomes covered, it will become apparent whether the green choices are working. If not, increase the presence of violet and orange (see blog post from June 9, 2008). When ask about green by students, I reference the color theories explained above and reply, “The secret of green is orange, and its friend is violet.”

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One thought on “The Problem with Green, Part 2

  1. Sandy Tincher

    I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your columns. I read all of them and have found so many helpful hints for working with pastels. Please continue as I appreciate all your knowledge and skill. (Took one of your workshops ages ago in Medford) Thanks, Sandy