Mixing beautiful greens

The rookie error for summer is to paint all foliage using the same basic color. You lose more points if it’s sap green.

Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869.

This weekend, the mercury climbed to 70° F., which forced the “wall of green” into budding. New England is now in her summer raiment, although it will get a bit deeper and more solid. It’s time to talk about mixing pretty and varied greens.

Michael Wilcox published a famous watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Most of what it tells you can now be found on the internet, but it’s where I first got the idea to add back the banned black.

Mixed greens. Almost a salad.

His point was that there are many routes to the same destination, and that to really mix colors, you need to understand what pigments you’re using, not work from trade names for colors. Consider sap green, for example—a staple of many plein air painters’ toolkit. It’s really a convenience mix. The same is true of Hooker’s Green in watercolor.

The single-pigment (‘true’) greens available are chromium oxide green, viridian, and cobalt green. Chromium oxide green is a lovely, heavy, natural green. Unfortunately, it outweighs everything it’s mixed with. Viridian and cobalt green are lovely, but expensive. Beware viridian hue—it’s just another phthalo in disguise.

Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz

The rookie error is to paint all your greens using the same hue, modulating lighter or darker for highlights and shadows. You’ll have much more life in your trees if you know all the different ways you can get to leafy green. One of the most useful greens is black plus cadmium yellow lemon (or Hansa yellow).

The best way to navigate the colors of foliage is to avoid greens out of a tube altogether. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.

In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.

I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed and on a chart. Note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.

Swatches by Jennifer Johnson

First mix greens according to the chart, and then modulate your resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color). The specific tints are unimportant, but the most useful one for landscape is a mix of white, ultramarine and quinacridone violet, making a pale lavender. It is great for atmospheric perspective.

Your assignment is to hit paint swatches as closely as you can. 

The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)

Detail of Jennifer’s chart, above.

I also have my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark-neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. Raw sienna plus ultramarine is my go-to starting point for granite and the sands of our northern beaches.

Monday Morning Art School: mixing greens

The rookie error for summer is to paint all foliage using the same basic color. You lose more points if it’s sap green.
Hazy mountain afternoon: Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.
I have a student who reacts to my pulling out black paint by making the sounds of a rattlesnake at me. She’s been fully inculcated into the idea that black should be banned.
Michael Wilcox published a famous watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Most of what it tells you can now be found on the internet, but it’s where I first got the idea to add back the banned black.
His point was that there are many routes to the same destination, and that to really mix colors, you need to understand what pigments you’re using, not work from trade names for colors. Consider sap green, for example—a staple of many plein air painters’ toolkit. It’s really a convenience mix made of a phthalo blue and some kind of yellow. The same is true of Hooker’s Green.
Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz
The single-pigment (‘true’) greens available are chromium oxide green, viridian, and cobalt green. Chromium oxide green is a lovely, heavy, natural green. Unfortunately, it outweighs everything it’s mixed with. Viridian and cobalt green are lovely, but expensive. Beware viridian hue—it’s just another phthalo in disguise.
By now, foliage has settled into a deeper, more uniform tone. The rookie error of August is to paint all your greens using the same basic color, modulating lighter or darker for highlights and shadows. You’ll have much more life in your trees if you know all the different ways you can get to leafy green. One of the most useful greens is black plus cadmium yellow lemon (or Hansa yellow).
Mixed greens, in oils.
The best way to navigate the colors of foliage is to avoid greens out of a tube altogether. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.
In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed (at top) and on a chart (below). I’m leaving for Castine Plein Air, but if I were teaching, I’d be drilling my students on green this week.
Swatches by Jennifer Johnson
First mix greens according to the chart, and then modulate your resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color). The specific tints are unimportant, but the most useful one for landscape is a mix of white, ultramarine and quinacridone violet, making a pale lavender. It is great for atmospheric perspective.
Note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.
Your assignment is to hit paint swatches as closely as you can. 
The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)
Jennifer’s neutral swatches, up close.
I also have my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark-neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. Raw sienna plus ultramarine is my go-to starting point for granite and the sands of our northern beaches.

Mixing greens

There are many paths to the final destination, grasshopper. This is just one fast, easy route to mixing summer greens.
Mixed greens, in oils.
Here in mid-coast Maine, the fog and rain are finally releasing the leaves from their winter sheathes. Hints of green show in my lawn, and the hardiest perennials poke their noses through last year’s leaf litter. We are very close to painting greens again, in all their light, airy delicacy.
By June, we will be wrapped in a blanket of immature, emerald foliage. By August, the color will have settled into a deeper, more uniform tone. The only way to navigate this is to avoid greens out of a tube. A system of paired primaries gives you more options, avoiding the acidity of phthalo green, the weight of chromium oxide green, or the soul-sucking darkness of sap green.
Jennifer’s exercise in mixing and modulating greens.
Michael Wilcox published a watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. Well, of course they do, but his point was that there are many routes to the same destination. One of the most useful landscape greens is black and cadmium lemon or Hansa yellow. Of all the greens I mix, this and ultramarine with yellow ochre are the two I use the most.
In my experience, bad paint mixing causes paintings to go wrong faster than anything else. Constantly over-daubing to modulate the paint color distorts the original drawing and makes a grey mush. If you’re confident of the color, you can apply it fast and accurately.
Loren’s exercise in mixing and modulating greens.
For the past two weeks, I’ve drilled my students on mixing color. These are simple exercises you can do at home.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed (at top) and on a chart (below). The two swatch charts were done in acrylics by students. I asked them to first mix greens according to the chart, and then mix the resulting greens with tints (meaning a mix of white and a color) of ultramarine, raw sienna, and quinacridone violet. What the specific tints were was unimportant; what mattered was how differently tints mix from white out of a tube.
Cadmium lemon can be substituted for Hansa yellow
The range of results is infinite. It depends on both the proportions you choose and the brand of paint you use. However, note that blue/black pigments are much stronger than the yellows. You need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow.
These are Benjamin Moore swatches but you can find similar colors in other brands.
The second exercise involves stopping at your local hardware store for a few paint swatches. These are Benjamin Moore brand, but you should be able to find similar ones elsewhere. There are two off-whites: one cool and one warm. There’s yellow, green, and two soft blues. Your assignment is to mix until you think you’ve hit the exact color. Then put a dot of it on the card to see how close you got. (If you’re working in watercolor, the dot goes on paper instead.)
Jennifer’s neutral swatches.
I also had my students make neutrals using combinations of ultramarine blue with burnt sienna and raw sienna. I use ultramarine blue and burnt sienna as my standard dark neutral, because it can go to the warm or cool side depending on how it is mixed. These are also my go-to mixes for rocks and sands.

It’s not easy being green

“Jamie’s waterfall,” 12X16, oil on canvasboard. Painted in two hours flat, and after
packing my car and driving six hours. Only possible because I was working with a color matrix.
We are at that moment when the greens of the northeast suddenly become massive, heavy, and sometimes overbearing to new painters. We love summer, we want to share how delicious it is… and then we hit the wall of green.
Sue Bailey Leo’s version
of my green matrix.
I paint with color matrices wherever possible because they speed the process up, and the more one can get out of one’s own way, the better things go. In the case of foliage, a matrix allows one to separate the different green tones in a painting.
I don’t generally paint with a green pigment on my palette (with the occasional exception of chromium oxide green because it’s the exact shade and weight of summer foliage in the northeast). Instead, I mix them:

This matrix is, top to bottom: black, ultramarine blue.
Left to right: Cad. lemon yellow (or Hansa yellow, depending on my mood), Indian yellow hue (or gamboge hue), yellow ochre.
That gives you nine yellows ranging from high-chroma to subdued, blue to almost orange. In addition, you can tweak each color to either side by adding more of one or the other component, and you can also tint each tone by adding white.
The same matrix, mixed and with the addition of a row of cad. orange in the “yellows”.
Sometimes I shake it up by adding a row of cadmium orange tints, as above.

I’ve taught with this matrix for years and can attest that it helps beginning painters escape the deadly weight of greens, fast. 
Sue Bailey Leo’s first trip out this season. Note
 how effectively she was able to separate the greens.
And here is me, painting in a creek this week. Never happier than when wet, cold, and totally into the process.
Painting in the creek in front of Jamie’s waterfall, at dusk. I loves my Keens!