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.