Greens in the Landscape

by Armand Cabrera

Green seems to be one of those colors that thoroughly baffles most artists. They tend to overstate their greens or paint them too similar, killing any chance for interest and a sense of light. I thought with spring slowly coming back to most of the country I would offer some tips on tackling green in your landscapes.

First get rid of any green pigment on your palette. The best way to make a green is to mix it. Second forget about approaches that add red or some other color as an undertone to your canvas. Its just sloppy, formulaic and heavy handed like using a chainsaw to prune your flowers. With three blues, two reds and two yellows and white on my palette I can mix any color I need.

If you’ve read this blog for awhile you know I hate formulas and any formulaic approach to painting. It is the same with greens, but there are some real world observations I can offer that might help you to see the variety and interest in your greens when painting the landscape.

Take the time to observe how things grow. As plants and trees produce new foliage the old stuff wilts and eventually dies and falls to the ground. As it does this it goes through hue changes that are observable. New growth tends to be lighter and brighter than mature leaves. It also has the greatest hue shift for the greens except in fall. Some trees and plants actually have new growth that is pink orange, red, yellow or violet and this color is slowly replaced by the green of the mature leaves.

There is a point where the leaves no longer produce green and they start towards the color they will be in fall. This gradual change happens for weeks before the big fall color change that takes place in a matter of days as the tree or plant prepares for winter. Most of this change takes place at the outer edges of the trees or plants and the cores are usually made of limbs and trunks.

Look for opportunities to design compliments and other colors in a natural way into the green landscape. This is important because more than anything what causes a paintings failure is a lack of thoughtful design.

Good design starts with good selection of the elements to create the image. Follow this with intense observation of those elements and careful simplification of them, removing extraneous information that detracts from idea behind the painting.

Pay close attention to the abstract geometric planes of the forms for value and temperature shifts. Note the different hues of the various species you are observing. Use edges to describe the character and line of action all things have that give them individuality.

A thoughtful approach trumps a formula any day of the week. Use observation and design to control your greens and stop them from controlling you.

20 thoughts on “Greens in the Landscape

  1. Which blues, reds and yellows are you using for your base palette? What's the thinking behind choosing those specific colors? For example, is one of your blues a warm and another a cool or something like that? Thanks.

  2. I agree 100%. I mix greens using Cad Yellow Lt and Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt for most averages of greens in my area (I live in New England, if I was painting in Colorado I would mix to the averages of the greens in that area). For the lighter early spring greens I use a mixture of Cad Yellow Light and a small drop of Phthalo green with some white.

    I have 4 Blues on my palette, Cerulean, Cobalt, Ultramarine and Prussian or Phthalo.

  3. John,

    My palette is made up of warm and cool primaries with the addition of Manganese blue for skies. Sometimes I will swap the manganese for Prussian Blue but I never have them both on the palette at the same time.

    The colors are Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Manganese Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow pale and Titanium White. Sometimes I use a palette of just primaries; they are Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium yellow light.

  4. Jeff,

    I agree that mixing is the way to go. One it gives you a more personal color set than out of the tube color. Two it makes you think and avoid formulaic approaches that use pure tube colors.

  5. "Good design starts with good selection of the elements to create the image. Follow this with intense observation of those elements and careful simplification of them, removing extraneous information that detracts from idea behind the painting."

    Wow, that has got to be the most useful, succinct painting advice I have read. Thank you.

  6. Jeremy,

    Thanks for the kind words, I never know if I'm making sense or not since much of this is very personal. I am constantly trying to find universal advice that leaves ample room for self expression.

  7. I have printed out and refer often to 'the elegance of abstraction' post, and am trying to build my art with that end in mind. Your advice takes much thought to absorb, but is the way to make profound improvement.
    Your comment at Underpaintings: Portrait Face-Off, about observing the portrait artists had difficulties with alla prima, was interesting. What was it you noticed?

  8. Judy,
    I know I'm going to get in trouble for this. In my opinion the alla prima portraits had proportion and drawing flaws that were very evident except for Rose Frantzen who, by the way, won.

    I attribute this to most of those talented artists not painting from life very often or if they do paint from life, they don't paint alla prima (in one sitting). You don't think so?

  9. Armand! This is very helpful to me.
    Minnesota is blue & green, so I want to get believable greens.
    (I've had an unopened tube of manganese Blue, think i'll open it up!)

  10. Bill,
    If you are close to St Paul, Joe Paquet has a studio there and is one of the best painters in the country, the Manganese Blue was his idea. Also Charles Muench told me about Prussian Blue for skies. I still flip betweent both.

  11. Armand,
    The only portrait I concretely noticed was distorted was Clayton Beck's, in that his portrait did not 'agree' in likeness with the other artists who had the same model, and did appear strangely foreshortened. As to other proportion problems I noticed, I attributed them to the 2-1/2 hour time limit, which for you may be plenty of time, but for me sounds like quite swift painting! Thanks for your clarification.

  12. Armand,

    Great post. I've always felt that an artist who can conquer green(and draw well, course) is miles ahead. I also appreciate your "no formula" approach to creating paintings. It's risky, but it produces truly unique work.
    All the best to you,

  13. Armand, does the palette you list above change, depending on the season, or the subject,or is it the palette you always use? Thanks.

  14. This has certainly changed my whole outlook, and made me look so much closer. The prime example is the huge Sycamore trees right in front of my house, The varying degree,s of leaves changing colour, some so brown and ready to drop, some yellow some with purplish hues. I will certainly use this advice instead of using a couple of shades of green and will be mixing my own in future to avoid the Oh so uniform block greens colours in a pallette. Thank you. SHIRL

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