The devil’s in the details

Pam’s paints weren’t cheap; they were by reputable manufacturers. But she was caught in the maze of historic names and convenience mixes.

Spring Allee, 14X18, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

Last week my students did a green-mixing exercise. Pam Otis had a tough time getting the proper mixes out of the yellows on her palette. After class, she sent me photos of every yellow she had. I spent an instructive half-hour happily looking up each tube.

I know, generally, what’s in colors, but different manufacturers have different ways of getting to that point. If the paint tube isn’t marked (or has been crimped or damaged so you can’t read the tiny type), you must research the paint on the manufacturer’s site. Often, you’ll learn something, because paints are constantly changing.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, available.

Some changes are due to market conditions. PO49, quinacridone gold, was a very useful color (as all the quinacridones are). However, it was discontinued by the auto industry in 2001. The fine arts market for pigments is miniscule, so PO49 disappeared. Most modern quinacridone golds are convenience mixes of quinacridone orange (PO48) and nickel azo yellow (PY150). Both are perfectly fine pigments, but they work differently in mixes than the original pigment.

Other substitutions are more inscrutable. The siennas are ancient pigments made of dirt—a mixture of iron and manganese oxides, to be specific. In its natural state, this pigment is yellow-brown and called raw sienna. Cooked, it turns red and is burnt sienna. Along with ochre and umber, raw sienna was among the first pigments ever used by prehistoric humans. It has been used ever since, because it’s cheap, plentiful, harmless, and doesn’t fade. Modern earth pigments are all manufactured analogues, but are chemically indistinguishable from the old mined ore.

I have no idea why Winsor & Newton substitutes a combination of burnt sienna (PR101) and yellow ochre (PY42) for ordinary raw sienna. But that may be why some yellow ochres and raw siennas are indistinguishable out of the tube.

Bracken fern, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

A hue is a blend of less-expensive pigments. There is nothing inherently wrong with hues, but they don’t behave the same as the pigments they’re named after. “Cadmium yellow hue” may look like cadmium yellow coming out of the tube, but it makes insipid greens.

Then there is the stuff that watercolorists call Gamboge. The real thing came from tapping the latex of the Garcinia, or Gamboge Tree. It’s a beautiful, transparent, non-staining orange-yellow, but it’s also extremely fugitive (as vegetable dyes tend to be). So, manufacturers substitute other pigments and call the result New Gamboge. The most common ingredients are nickel azo yellow and anthrapyrimidine yellow (PY108) However, there are as many formulas as there are manufacturers, and every combination behaves differently.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, available.

The origins of Indian yellow have long been disputed. It was said that it was extracted from the urine of cows fed a diet of only mango leaves. 20th century, art historians doubted this, but recent chemical analysis of historic samples confirm the source as animal urine.

We now reject the idea of starving cows to create pretty pigments (although euxanthic acid can be synthesized in the lab). Today we use combinations of nickel azo, hansa yellow, and quinacridone burnt orange. It’s a terrific paint for making dark greens. The trouble, again, is that every manufacturer has its own formula for Indian Yellow.

Pam’s paints weren’t cheap; they were by reputable manufacturers. But she was caught in the maze of historic names and convenience mixes. Knowing how to read the CII code on your paint tube is important.

The CII code consists of two letters and some numbers. Most paints start with a “P” which means it’s a pigment, not a dye. The next letter is the color family:  PR is red, PY is yellow, etc. The number is the specific pigment included in the tube.

Save this link somewhere accessible from your phone. You’ll need it when you shop. This pigment guide was built for watercolors but is generally true across all media. 

Monday Morning Art School: get to that color fast

To paint with assurance, you need to be able to mix colors effortlessly. These tips will help you get there.

Peppers, by me. Cool light, warm shadows.

Start with an organized palette. I paint with my pigments moving from blues on the left through reds and yellows, followed by the three earth pigments to the far right. White is at the bottom. My particular system isn’t what’s important. But always put paints in some kind of logical order and in the same spot.

These basic rules make mixing easier:

  • Never try to paint with hardened paints;
  • Squeeze out enough paint;
  • Put out every color, regardless of what you think you’ll need. Every painting should have a broad range of colors in it, regardless of the subject;
  • Put out more of each color when you use it up, not when you think you’ll need it again;
  • Start mixing each color with the closest match on your palette, and adjust from there;
  • Add small amounts of paint as you adjust the mixture.
Jamie Williams Grossman‘s lovely painting and palette in the Hudson Valley style, showing color strings. Photo courtesy of the artist.
A color string is a set of premixed paints, usually modulated with white or another light color. Artists sometimes mix a series of these starting from each base color. In the Hudson Valley, you’ll sometimes see artists working from vertical palette boxes containing a slew of these premixed colors.

I use a simpler variation of that idea. I make mid-tone tints of each pigment. Different pigments may look the same when squeezed out of the tube, but there the similarity ends. Knowing how a pigment works when tinted with white is critical. Moreover, these tints become the backbone of a bright finished painting. 

A matrix is a color string in 3-D.

In watercolor, the equivalent is tonal steps, or how the pigment acts in different dilutions. You can’t premix them, but you should understand them.

Before you lift a brush, premix three colors for each major object:

  • A light tone, the color of the lightest side of the object;
  • A mid-tone, which is the local color of the object;
  • A dark tone, which is the deepest color.

These should be fairly close in value. For the extremes, you’ll use your global shadow and highlight colors.

In the example at top of the page, the light is cool—you can tell by looking at the tray. There is a warm dark shadow, a ‘true’ mid-tone, and a cool light color for each pepper. The tray is black. Since the shadows are warm, they’re a reddish black. They were made by tempering burnt sienna with ultramarine blue. The highlights are pale blue.

Start by getting the value right first. That’s usually the most difficult part. You can’t raise the chroma of a paint, so if you get it too neutral, set it aside and start again. If it’s too intense, mix in a bit of its complement.

My palette, diagrammed by Victoria Brzustowicz. I generally don’t use red in landscape painting.

Black has a role in painting, but it’s not in making grey. If you need grey, make one by mixing two complements. Greys are never totally neutral in real life; they always have overtones of color. Start by figuring out what that is. Then start from that color, and add its complement until you hit the perfect neutral note.

Once you’ve mixed your color ‘puddles’, look at them as a whole. How do they go together? Which do you want to emphasize?

Keuka Lake, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

I use a green matrix for painting foliage. Otherwise, greens can be oppressively monochromatic in high summer. Remember those tints I had you mix? You can use them to modulate these greens into hundreds of different shades. Just use blues and violet tints to drive the greens back in space, and yellows and oranges to bring them forward.

By thinking through color relationships before you start painting, you can keep them consistent and unified. As time goes by, you’ll learn to do this intuitively. However, when I muck up a painting, it’s almost always because I haven’t really thought the light and color structure through.

This was originally posted in 2020.

Monday Morning Art School: the color of earth

The earth pigments are our oldest colors, and they’ve served humanity well.

Dry Wash, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Years ago, I met an artist in Taos who told me that he never used the earths—siennas and umbers—in his paintings. I don’t remember his name, but I vividly remember his rationale. They were too close in color to the rocks of New Mexico. He did better to mix those warm shades.

That is very close to my own rationale for not having greens on my palette. The East is a predominantly-green environment. Using greens straight out of the tube is the best possible way to deaden your painting into a universal dull greenness without variety, sparkle or light.

Old Barnyard in New Mexico, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

I’m teaching in New Mexico this week, so I have to adjust my own palette. My reliance on the earths has to ease up. However, my students are all from the south or east, meaning they’ll go back to a green landscape. I want them to take home the logic behind my palette, not an arbitrary rule.

The earth pigments are minerals that have been used in painting since prehistoric times. They’re primarily iron oxides and manganese oxides. We know them as the ochres, siennas and umbers. They’re extremely lightfast. In watercolor they granulate beautifully because of their large particle size. They’re relatively non-toxic* and they’re cheap. Those are all valuable properties to the painter, which is why they’re so widely used.

On the other hand, they look just like the earth because they’re made of dirt and rust (although we synthesize some of them today). They’re complex colors with lots of overtones. In mixtures they stubbornly retain traces of their own character. In a painting predominated by the natural reds and browns of the west, that can get pretty dull, pretty fast. If you want to know how a reliance on the earth pigments will turn out, see Rembrandt—great for Dutch interiors, not so good for American landscape.

Downdraft snow, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

The world of greens cannot be simulated by something taken from nature. The pigments that give us green in nature—chlorophylls—are not lightfast. Instead, painters rely on an inorganic compound, chromium oxide green, which we know as viridian or chrome green. Chromium oxide is synthetic, but it does appear in nature as a rare mineral. It is relatively low-stain and inexpensive. It too granulates, which makes it valuable to watercolorists.

Chromium oxide green is a good workhorse pigment, far preferable to the deadening sap green that so many painters love. Sap green started as an unstable extract of buckthorn berries. What we buy today is a convenience mix based on phthalo green. That’s also true of the mixture marketed as ‘viridian hue.’ Paints based on phthalocyanine dyes are very high-stain and have a different color profile than the pigments they’re mimicking. That’s not to disparage the phthalo blue and greens; in themselves they’re lightfast, cheap, and have transformed the modern world.

Spring thaw along the upper reaches of the Pecos River, oil on canvasboard, 12X16, $1159 unframed.

Hooker’s Green is another convenience hue. It’s named after an English botanical illustrator, William Hooker, who first put Prussian blue and gamboge together to make a clear, light green. There’s nothing wrong with that mixture—but you should be able to make it yourself, not buy it out of a tube.

That’s true across your palette. You’ll have more flexibility and less expense if you stop buying convenience mixes and ‘hues’.

*Don’t ever fall for the idea that if it’s natural, it’s non-toxic. Mother Nature has hidden a lot of dangerous minerals in this beautiful earth, including cinnabar, galena, lead, asbestos and more.

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: the color of Spring (part 1)

It’s time to assemble the proper pigments to paint beautiful greens this spring.
Fog over Whiteface Mountain, by Carol L. Douglas.
If March didn’t exactly come in like a lamb this year, it at least came in like a sheep. Don’t be fooled. Some of our most brutal winter storms have been known to happen in March. Walking to church, I pondered the depleted state of our woodpile. I wasn’t the only person thinking on these lines. My pal Naomi told me she was going home to move wood “while the ground is still frozen.”
That doesn’t mean that color is not peeping through here and there. The days are growing longer. We may see snowdrops and winter aconite appearing along granite foundations this week. Back in western New York, two witch hazels ought to be blooming, planted by me.
Spring arrives in a host of rich colors, and we’ll discuss that next week. But we must start with the predominant color, which is green. In my own yard, the green moss on the stone wall and my shed roof are the only visible cues that the season is changing. They tell me that growth and warmth are happening under the surface.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas
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.
Mixed greens, in oils.
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. Any other greens you buy in a tube are just variations of those pigments, or convenience mixes.
To make a whole range of beautiful greens, make sure you have the following pigments in your toolkit. Since they’re all-around useful colors, they make a lot more sense than carrying several greens.

  • Black
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Prussian (or phthalo) blue
  • Hansa (or Cadmium lemon) yellow light
  • Diarylide (“Indian”) yellow
  • Yellow ochre

The rookie error of landscape painting is to make 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. 

Chart courtesy of Victoria Brzustowicz
In fact, 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.
Green modulation swatches by student Jennifer Johnson.
I make my greens on a matrix, which I’ve shown you both mixed and on a chart. After mixing greens according to the chart, you can then experiment with modulating 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.

The changing nature of green

Green is infinitely varied, by location and by season.
Spring allee (bridal path) by Carol L. Douglas

Earlier this week I gave readers my matrix for mixing greens. It’s a central console from which you can travel in any direction to meet the greens that you actually see. Greens shift by latitude, altitude, and by season of the year, but if you start there, you should be able to go anywhere.

In the northeast, we aren’t seeing much green yet. The willow twigs are yellow and the osier is a brilliant red but everything else appears dormant. Later this month we’ll see the first haze of spring foliage. That is often anything but green, depending on the color of the bud scales. Maples, for example, have distinctive red buds. You can expect to modulate your greens with yellows, blues or even orange in spring.
(The US Geological Service tracks tree budding here.)
Early spring, by Carol L. Douglas. Early spring colors can look just like autumn colors.
By June our foliage is hardening into its true summer color. From June to August, the northern forest is growing rapidly. Trees compete ferociously for sunlight. They crowd out the weak and aggressively send saplings into any open space.
Beach saplings, by Carol L. Douglas. By mid-summer, trees have assumed a fairly uniform green.
Leaves convert light into energy through photosynthesis. This happens in tiny organelles in the cells of the leaf that contain the pigment chlorophyll. During peak summer months, leaves are absolutely stuffed with chlorophyll. If one color represented mid-summer green, it would be chromium-oxide green. However, it would be a mistake to paint trees with this pigment. You’d have an undifferentiated, uniform mess of green. How do I know? I’ve done it.
Trees breathe through stomata, located on the undersides of deciduous leaves and in bands along evergreen needles. This is why leaves are paler on the underside.
Palm, by Carol L. Douglas. The greens of tropical areas are different from northern greens.
By late summer, replacement chlorophyll is blocked from traveling into the leaves. This results in autumn color. But green, albeit dulled, remains an integral part of the autumn landscape right until the last leaves fall. Dampen those brilliant greens by modulating with their complements.
There is also green in the dead of winter. The evergreens retain their dark foliage, which ranges from almost black to grey-greens.
Nunda barn, (pastel) by Carol L. Douglas. Even in the height of fall color, there is much green.
Conifer needles usually last around three years before they turn brown, yellow or red and drop off. This natural aging affects the color you see at a distance.
Most pines drop their needles in the fall. These turn yellow naturally from the top to the bottom of the tree. Spruces and firs also drop needles, but the change is usually less noticeable because their older needles are thinned progressively.
Snow at higher elevations, by Carol L. Douglas.
Usually, conifers are the only green we see in the winter landscape. These trees are biologically adapted to lousy soil and the weak sunshine of high latitudes. That gives them their dark-green coloration; it helps them absorb more sunlight. This is why the pines of the south are lighter in color.

Monday Morning Art School: the need for green

A fast, easy route to mixing plausible summer greens.

Overlooking Lake Champlain, by Carol L. Douglas. Every green in this painting came from the matrix below. And, yes, there’s a scrape in it. It tumbled off a bluff.

The need for green came early to class this year, paradoxically because it’s been cold this spring. There’s little green peeping out in nature, even here on the coast.
Last week in class we worked on salvaging failed paintings. That meant pulling out work from summers past. Most of them included some greens, so we had to mix a green chart.
A basic mixing chart for greens, made by my friend and student Victoria Brzustowicz.
We are only weeks away from painting greens again, in all their light, airy delicacy. Even now, the osier and willows have red and yellow in their branches. By June, we will be wrapped in a blanket of immature foliage ranging in color from pale emerald to pink. It’s a good time to brush up on some color theory.
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.
If you look carefully at supposedly-uniform foliate, you will see patches where the color leans toward khaki, yellow, teal, violet and orange. They are what gives life to greens, just as accidental tones give life to human skin.
Michael Wilcox published a watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. 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.
The above chart, mixed in oils. It works just as well in water-based media.

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.

Above is the matrix of greens I’ve used for almost twenty years. The range of results is infinite. It depends on the proportions you choose and the brand of paint you use. However, blue/black pigments are always much stronger than their yellow mates. In any mixture, you need about half the amount of blue or black as you do yellow. This has nothing to do with color theory. It’s because darker pigments have more staining power than do lighter pigments.
Victoria Brzustowicz made this color chart based on my workshop palette. Here is a printable PDF.I crossed out the red on the chart because, while I do use it in the studio, in most field painting it’s unnecessary.
Once you’ve finished mixing that matrix, it’s time to tie it to the bigger palette. I encourage students to arrange their paints as above because:
  • It’s efficient;
  • It allows you to mix without thinking;
  • It encourages you to use the full color range in every painting;
  • It prevents the beginner’s error of modulating with white or black;

You can modulate your greens using tints of your other colors. For atmospheric greens, modulate with blues and violets. For warm, lighter greens, modulate with warmer tones.
Mount Hope Cemetery in the Spring, by Carol L. Douglas
Above is a photograph I took several summers ago. Your mission is to use the green chart I’ve made and mix tones similar to the different greens in the photo. If you get the mixing right, painting this scene will be a snap.

The lies we tell ourselves about painting

Some have a germ of truth; some are out and out wrong.

Île d’Orléans waterfront farm, by Carol L. Douglas. ‘Immediate’ shouldn’t mean half-baked.
Don’t overwork it:This is the most common bromide I hear. I hate it. It encourages painters to stop prematurely, and to not work out the latent potential or problems in the work.
It’s far better to go too far and need to fix your mistakes than never understand your limits or see where you might end up. “Don’t overwork it” is a great way to permanently stunt your growth as a painter.
Replace it with this: “If you can paint it once, you can paint it 1000 times.” It liberates you to scrape out, redraw, paint over, scribe across your surface and otherwise really explore your medium. And it’s actually true.
Cirrus clouds at Olana, by Carol L. Douglas. I couldn’t have painted this had I not learned how to marry edges.
That’s your style: When I was a painting student, I had a teacher tell me that heavy lines were my ‘style’. They weren’t; I just hadn’t learned how to marry, blur or emphasize edges. These are technical skills, and to master them I had to move on to the Art Students League and teachers who understood the difference between technique and style.
Ultimately, we all end up with identifiable styles, but they should be un-self-conscious, the result of putting paint down many, many times. Anything that we do to avoid learning proper technique is not a style, it’s a failure.
Blues player Shakin Smith once told me that his style was the gap between his inner vision and his capacity to render it. That made me stop worrying about style at all.
Vineyard, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. The dominant greens in this painting are based on ivory black.
Don’t use black: “Monet didn’t use black, and you shouldn’t, either!” That’s true, but only after 1886, when Monet (apparently) adopted a limited palette. On the other hand, his palette included emerald green, which was copper-acetoarsenite, the killer pigment of the 19th century. There are limits to aping the masters of the past.
Monet made chromatic blacks, which are mixtures of hues that approximate black. Every artist should learn how to make neutrals, and not rely on buying Gamblin’s premix. But there are places where black is useful. One is in mixing greens. Another is in mixing skin tones. Contemporary painting is all about the tints (mixing with white) but ignores shades (mixing with black) and tones (mixing with black and white).
Back in the day, art students learned not just tints, but shades and tones.
Pros use more paint:Beginning artists generally don’t use enough paint, so it’s useful to tell them to increase the amount of paint. However, there are some great painters out there who work very thin—Colin Pageis an excellent example. The problem is in getting to that point. It’s a mastery born of years of experience. To get there you need—annoyingly—to start with more paint.
Fish Beach, by Carol L. Douglas.
If it’s not beautiful, you’re doing something wrong: Seeking beauty instead of truth is a great way to make static paintings. Paintings go through many ugly phases before they’re finished, and sublimating their ragged edges is a great way to drain all the juice out of your painting.

I’ve got one more workshop available this summer. Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

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.