It’s Not Easy Being Green

For those painting outdoors, particularly landscape artists, one is confronted with an abundance of green; from fields of grass to forests with countless leaves and needled trees, the color is unavoidable. For many, this many not seem like a matter worth fretting over, but as we will see, a careless approach to green in one’s painting can ruin an otherwise fine work of art.

A quick image search for landscape paintings on Google can give us a sense of the jarring green that tends to pervade many works.

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Before I proceed, I should make the disclaimer that art is a matter of taste, and for some, the above is not only acceptable but perhaps embraced. That being said, in my experience, I have found that most people tend to connect stronger with a different approach. For comparison, let’s try googling “master landscape painting” and view the results.

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Quite the difference! In fact, despite the fields and trees, the bright green we tend to associate with grass and leaves is almost completely absent from the above images. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will touch upon in a moment, but before we continue, I’d like you to consider your own reaction to the two different approaches. You’ll likely agree that there is certainly a different mood associated with the latter paintings—one I would define as more complex in emotion. The former set of paintings are no doubt full of life and a sense of positivity, but almost singularly so.

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An interesting consideration is the color sensitivity of the human eye. As it turns out, bright green is the hue most easily seen by people, hence its use in improving visibility of safety equipment, etc. The reason for this is due in part to the fact that sunlight is strongest around this range, a feature of which the human eye has taken advantage. This is also the reason why plants reflect green light—essentially, they are preventing over-exposure.  So, in a sense, painting this bright green color is something like singing a pure, high note—beautiful but best used in moderation. 

“Fair enough,” you might say, “but if the landscape is green, isn’t that what I should paint?”

Yes and no.

You may know that the grass can be green but is that actually what you’re seeing? Often times, the artist’s inaccurate perception of color is behind their overzealous application of green. You may have noticed that many of the paintings in the second image search depict times of day when the sun is either setting or rising, casting warm colors throughout the landscape. Inevitably, those warm colors will neutralize the greens, forcing them toward muted tones or into the reds altogether. For many of those artists, they chose that particular time of day because of this effect of light. If you wish to do the same, be sure to observe carefully the changes to your scene. Take a look at the painting in the first set, bottom row, third from the left. If the clouds were truly so pink and orange, it is very unlikely that the grass would be as glaringly green as was painted. In addition to sun effects, atmosphere also will affect color temperature. That is, as objects approach the horizon, they will cool in chroma, tending toward blue. While we can see that observation rendered in many of the above paintings, a couple of the images from the first set did not appear to take this into account. Furthermore, on clear days with a  midday sun, cast shadows will almost always take on blue hues from skylight. Simply painting a “dark green” shadow without accounting for a shift in color temperature will perpetuate the overly saturated sense of one’s painting.

Even in ideal conditions, like a field in direct sunlight, you will likely discover many colors other than green between the blades of grass. What do you see? A good exercise I like to do is to view a scene and ask, “Do I see any red? Purple? Blue?” etc. Let your eye highlight any objects that so much as suggest changes in temperature or chroma, and then be sure to include those observations in your painting. Depending on your style and tendency toward impressionism, you can push these color changes further, exaggerating them to an exciting result. I’ll leave you with a painting by the master of this technique: Grainstacks in the Sunlight, Midday by Claude Monet.

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