Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 1, 2013

The Fear of Green

Degas said, “What a horrible thing yellow is!” the same could be said by many people about green. Many artists avoid it altogether and go for a sort of khaki. If you look at the works of Edward Wesson and others you would think the colour didn’t exist! I am not saying that the pictures don’t look nice but when I go out into the English landscape I can’t help noticing a fair bit of stuff around that has a distinctly greenish tinge! Now I think of it the stuff is practically wall to wall…
So why are greens so very hard to paint? The fashion for just making all the trees beige like a sort of permanent dull autumn really comes from old pictures where the greens have faded to a dull olive. Many pigments they had, especially in watercolour, were fugitive so these pictures would have been considerably greener originally. There is a strangeness however in the way we see greens. For some reason we see green in nature as a bright colour. Maybe in ages past when we lived on dry savannahs being able to spot a bit of distant green was a lifesaving ability. For whatever reason our perception of green is not quite as for other colours.
I was recently painting in the graveyard at Cookham with fellow artist painting friends and I was attempting to explain this in my usual irritating manner. I could see by the glazed eyes that words were not really getting through so I went out into the scene and collected a mixed sample of the leaves we could see and laid them on the palette. The effect is quite startling everybody should try it! The real greens looked dull and brown next to the paint greens which looked positively lurid in comparison.
So how is an artist to deal with this conundrum? Well when painting en plein air a good lesson is collect those leaves put them on your palette and just try and mix the same colour! What you find is that natural greens are far more red than we expect. Our Emerald Green, Viridian etc are much too vibrant for a naturalistic representation of landscape. The trouble being that our eyes pump up the greens in any case so if you do that in your painted colours then the greens get so bright that they poke holes in the back of your retinas!
The temptation then is to do as I described above and mute them completely. Which is what many very good painters do. I find however that for me this looses a vital part of the subject. The result of very muted greens is very tasteful and harmonious and I might often take just that approach in a studio painting, but for plein air where I am trying to evoke what I see before me in paint in doesn’t really appeal. I will go into a few mixing tactics, but I’ll add them to some pictures below as that will be clearer.


Essex, East End Paglesham, plein air, oil painting

This is East End Paglesham in Essex, very much of a backwater with decaying barges and all sorts of marine clutter beloved of the Wapping Group. I set

myself the task of getting two 20in by 12in panels painted to a finish. This meant I had to choose a not too complex subject and just focus on the basics.

Here we see a lot of warmed greens in action. If placed next to a straight from the tube colour any of these would look perhaps more brown than green.

Here I am using Terra Rosa for the warm addition which is a bit strong.


East End Paglesham, Essex, Barge, OIl painting, Plein air

I just shifted a bit for the second one and the sun had come out. As you see the sun has increased the contrasts but I have barely increased the strength

of the green hues. I am using Alizarin to warm the viridian hues and adding some cobalt blue also.


Dorset, waterclour

A wee 7in by 5in sketch of a very verdant bit of Dorset.


Stour, Dorset, River, Watercolour.

Here we are on the Stour in Dorset. Plenty of greens to battle with here! I am taking exactly the same tactic and warming the greens but mostly using

Quinacridone Red as the mixer. I find it a very good red for the purpose in watercolour as it has very little yellow in it. 1/2 sheet, Arches Rough.


Leigh on Sea, watercolour, plein air, fishing boat, mud

A brief respite from the greens. I blocked this in at Leigh on Sea but had to stop as the light was too brief. I finished it off from a snap I took as the sun

cut through the stormy clouds. 1/4 Sheet, Arches Rough.


Dorset, church, oil painting

This is a tiny church by the river Tarrant in Dorset. I very much wanted an extremely quiet mood. It was a temptation to add a dash of bright across the

centre but I decided not. 12in by 10in.


Grey Well, Surrey, watercolour

This is another small one of Greywell, I think in Surrey, but might be in Berkshire.


Grey Well Mill, watercolour, plein air

Here is the Mill at Greywell, I did three of this. Almost too pretty but fun to paint. In my A4 sketch book but the last I will do in it as the paper is horrid

and deadens any wash.


Grey Well, mill, oil painting, plein air

Here’s the second one a 10in by 8in. I was really working hard trying to keep the brightness of the greens in check.


Grey Mill, Surrey, painting, plein air

Here it is in the rain! This was done in 15 min at the very end of the day. A better composition I think than the other two. 10in by 7in. Oils


Wargrave, thames, Berkshire, oil painting, plein air

This is the Thames at Wargrave on a dull threatening day. Only about half an hour . As you can see in the overcast light the greens become browner still.

It is a very fine line between just right and moving the season on to Autumn! 10in by 7in Oils.


Sonning, Thames, river, plein air

This is the bridge at Sonning, the board was wider than is shown here but looks better cropped. I have painted this bridge a few times with poor results.

This one is the best so far, but a very difficult subject in flat light. I did in enjoy doing the willow though… maybe a bit too much as it has taken over the

picture! 10in by 14in oils.


Winchester, watercolour

I got the scale of the figures completely wrong here, hey are about double the size they should be! This is Winchester the day was beautiful and sunny.

Something ran up my trouser leg and bit me ‘orribly, yet another of the perils of plein air. 7in by 5in. Watercolour.


Winchester, watercolour

Another duff one, again I ruined it with badly drawn people. It really is worth taking time to sketch the figures in a separate pad and then add them once

resolved. However here I just dived in and paid the price! Winchester again A4 watercolour.


Winchester, wtercolour

A really tiny one of Winchester in my mini Moleskin. Only 5in across but great for catching the light in a quick 10 min.


Winchester, watercolour

Another teeny one a bit to the right of the other, the left hand tree is in both.


Winchester, watercolour

More of Winchester. The light was getting gorgeous as the day wore on. This was a delight to paint. 7in by 5in. Watercolour.


Winchester, oil painting

At the very end of the day we set about doing a street scene as the light faded. A real rush done in no more than 30min. Oils 10i by 10in.


Here is a feast of green, still dropping in red but a little less here to try and catch the brilliance of the day. Not far from Eton. 7in by 5in.


Cookham, graveyard, plein air, oil painting

Here I painted in the under colours on a white board using glaze medium and no white.It was rather like doing a watercolour. A very nice way to lay in

and has the added advantage that the first layer is dry in minutes. This is the scene that prompted the green lecture! The bright greens were washed in

just with pure colour and were far brighter than they are here, which just goes to show what a scary colour green is. 10in by 10in oils.

My thanks to Steven and Anne Alexander who invited me to stay and paint in beautiful Surrey and surrounding regions!

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