History, Symbolism and Secret Powers of the Color Green
As we celebrate the oncoming spring season, we uncover the curious history and interesting stories that surround the color green. See how it has inspired artists for centuries.
Get to know the symbolism of this color and how artists use it best. No matter the hue, if you paint it green, it will make an impression that lasts.
What the Eye Sees
On the visible spectrum, green sits between blue and yellow. In color theory, it is a secondary color, made by mixing blue and yellow.
In nature, chlorophyll is what gives plant life its color. The Wizard of Oz‘s Emerald City would have chromium readings off the chart as that is the element that gives emeralds their color.
Greens come in cool and warm hues that are often named after places and things in the natural world. From forest green to pine to mint, teal and chartreuse, greens can push into brown and blue territories, have pastel moments and can be so rich and verdant that they look almost radioactive.
History of the Hue
The root of the word green really says it all. From Old English, it shares origins with the words for grass and grow. The word was first used to describe the colors it is known for today in the West around 700 AD.
On an interesting etymological note, in ancient languages of Japan, China and Vietnam, blue and green were for a time indistinguishable linguistically. The same situation is found in texts from ancient Greece — the word for trees and seas is the same. So if blue is your favorite color — green might be too!
Whereas the color red was always reserved for royalty, in Western society, green has longtime associations with the merchant class. If you look closely, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is wearing an ensemble featuring a green bodice as befitting her station as the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. Likewise, the bride in the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck shows a wealthy merchant’s bride in rich green robes.
Ireland’s color story is definitely painted in shades of green. The color has centuries of associations with the country, because of its famously poeticized verdant landscape.
Those lines of poetry, in which Ireland is called the Emerald Isle, were published by 18th-century Irish writer William Drennan, in his poem, “When Erin first rose.”
In Islam, the color speaks of Paradise and the bounty of the promised land. The banner of Muhammad is green and almost every country where Islam is the official faith has it represented somewhere on their flag.
The positive marks for green definitely add up. There is global agreement from the United States to Europe to Asia and Islamic countries that it stands for the natural world and specifically springtime, youth, life, hope and renewal.
Green cards and green lights mean safety and permission in the U.S. Surprising to those who associate the goddess with the pinks and reds of Valentine’s Day, Venus historically has been tied to green as she is the patroness of gardens, vegetation and vineyards.
Neither good nor bad inherently, green is also associated with money. American “greenbacks” are indeed green in color and the name has become synonymous with all kinds of legal tender no matter their color.
Like all colors, green has a dark side too. William Shakespeare first called out the “green-eyed monster” in his tragedy, Othello. Envy, ambition, greed and jealousy have been associates of the color ever since.
In modern and contemporary portrayals, green’s former good health has taken a turn for the worst, becoming associated with toxicity and sickness — think “green at the gills”, absinthe, the Mr. Yuk sticker, and the skin of Frankenstein.
The color is also polarizing in political arenas. Oftentimes Green parties and movements rise up on behalf of the environment and no other color would do. In the same way green housing, green products and a green way of life are all purported to be for the environment and good for you, healthful in the extreme.
Green also has fantastical or mystical symbolism. In early days, that was perpetuated by the green skin of dragons, fairies and mythical beasts.
Modern depictions put green in the center of the magic of the celluloid screen with the debut of The Wizard of Oz, the first movie in Technicolor. Since then artists and filmmakers have used green to depict a wide gamut, from utopic landscapes to surrealism and sci-fi danger typified by Superman’s susceptibility to Kryptonite.
Paints & Dyes
Green pigments are sourced from numerous minerals: viridian, emerald and malachite just to name a few. The ones with interesting backstories for the artistically inclined include verdigris, the green powder made by putting copper plates into vats of fermenting wine, used on the murals of ancient Pompeii.
The pigment wasn’t permanent and didn’t play nicely with other paints. It is also highly toxic as Leonardo da Vinci warned in his treatise on painting. Chrome green replaced it in the artist’s studio in the late 1800s.
Also called viridian, chrome green was stable and safe to use. Vincent van Gogh did just that when he painted his Café Terrace at Night.
Before the 18th and 19th centuries when synthetic green pigments and dyes came upon the scene, dyes of green could really be called shades of brown. The first men of prehistory made green cloth dye out of the branches of the birch tree though the results were dulled and browned.
Though ancient Mesopotamian ceramics feature figures costumed in vibrant green and it is still a mystery to scientists as to how the original artists produced the color.
When in a Painting…
The color green holds true to its symbolism and stereotypes much of the time in fine art. It can be glitzy and glamorous, lush and lively, and sometimes sickly and threatening.
It can also make people feel calm because green is restful to the eye. Being in a green environment can reduce fatigue according to a study that goes back to the 1930s, so artists, if you want people to relax and stay awhile in front of your work, think green first and foremost.
You’ll be in good company. Masters past and present have reached for this color to take center stage or for a supporting role on their surfaces. The roster includes Renoir, Corot, Constable, Whistler, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Seurat. Contemporary artists include Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall and Lisa Yuskavage.
Painting Spring Greens
Pastel instructor and all-around inspiration Liz Haywood Sullivan also loves our token color green. And, she even has created a course specifically on Spring Greens: Landscape Painting in Pastel (preview trailer below).
For learning artists like us, this is a great resource because you learn the basics of color mixing and finish the course with a landscape artwork suffused with peace and springtime harmony. Insert dreamy sigh, lol. Enjoy!