Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Modulating Greens in Watercolor

Blog reader Diego Conte says:
"I am a young self taught artist in Spain, and your books are probably the best resource I have ever found. And your watercolour video is amazing. I'm recommending them to every artist I know."

"I don't know if there is any article in your blog on this matter, but since there is a chapter on your book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, I think it is not a bad idea at all to ask this question. How could I establish a good green harmony using watercolours? My mixes always end up looking muddy on the paper when I try to use green... it always look too cool If I need it to be warm or vice versa. I see a lot of great watercolor masters simply avoiding it using ochre or brown colour schemes instead. But I want to be faithful to my subject harmony. I don't know if it is an interesting topic for such a thing as an article, but any short tip or direction would be great."

Martín Rico y Ortega, watercolor
Thanks, Diego. Good question. Greens can be wonderful in watercolor, and it's a good goal to be faithful to nature.

The Spanish painter Martín Rico (1833-1908) is good to look at for how he uses greens. In this one he moves toward the blue-green hues. But it's not the hues, so much as the values that makes it work. He avoids muddiness by organizing the picture into three basic tonal areas: 1. light sky, 2. dark trees, and 3. middle-tone stream bank.

Simple, strong value schemes never look muddy. This is something Rico learned from Daubigny, one of the French Barbizon painters. 

Here's a small detail of the same painting. He uses a variety of greens, including blue greens, grey greens, and yellow greens. That doesn't mean he necessarily had a lot of separate green pigments on his palette. It just means he was conscious of varying the chroma and hue of the mixtures. Rico was also interesting in the way he left little white dots on the picture, which gives it a little sparkle.

Some artists leave green off the palette altogether and mix their greens from yellows and blues, because that way there's always variety in the mixture. In foliage there is variety of green in each leaf, variety in each small group of leaves, and variety from one tree to another, and variety from foreground to background. 

But all that variety must happen within those simple tonal areas, and that's what's a bit challenging.

Here's another watercolor landscape, this time by an English watercolorist namedHarry Sutton Palmer (1854-1933). Even though his range emphasizes yellow-green, he uses a subtle variety of colors, which would be more evident in the original.

One of the secrets to both this painting and the last one is that they chose not to paint a bright blue sky. A bright blue sky behind bright green leaves might look good in a photo, but it can often be deadly in a painting. However, green foliage against sky filled with a high white cloud layer can be very attractive.

Here's one last watercolor by Harry Sutton Palmer. Those greens are all composite mixtures, and none of them are too high-chroma. They're probably muted quite a bit from what he actually saw. And he obviously worked hard to simplify his values to the general midtone of the leaves, the light sky and distant area, and the dark areas of the tree bases.

Diego, I hope that helps. Good luck with your greens. Enjoy them while they remain before autumn and winter come.

Previously on GurneyJourney: The Green Problem


karl smith said...

James, thanks for another really informative post. I have learnt a lot from the recent series of watercolour posts, and had an "ahah" moment when you mentioned the problem of greens against a blue sky. Contrary to popular belief, we do often get blue skies here in England.
Your post also touched on an issue which I have struggled with since taking up watercolour, and that is how to get realistic sky colour at the point where sky meets distsnt land. Using light red has become a bit formulaic for me, and if you get the chance to cover this topic in a future post, that would be brilliant!

Tom Hart said...

What a great post, chock full of insight and information. Two gems stand out: the bit about the effectiveness of avoiding a deep blue sky behind greens (as pointed out by Karl)and the mention that strong simple values never look muddy. Both ring very true to me.

On a side note, I can't help but think, in light of the last post on pre-mixing strings of color, that that's not a practice that I recall hearing about in relation to watercolor. I think that's for obvious reasons. But I imagine that, in some form, it's been used, if not as readily.

David Webb said...

Good question, and answer. As a watercolourist myself, I fall into the 'mix your own greens' camp. It's weird as, although we're surrounded by greens in this world (most of it, anyway), they are the most difficult colours to portray. Perhaps it is because there is so much of it around, keeping it interesting becomes a challenge.

I do a lot of my mixing on the paper itself, as this enables me to change the mix as I go along, warming it up here and cooling it down there.
One of the most important things is maintaining that feeling of aerial perspective... warm in the foreground, cooler in the distance (but that's not written in stone either).

Keith Parker said...

Awesome stuff! Now I'm curious though, if red and green share the same space, smack dab in the middle of the value range, why don't people report problems with reds? Or do people generally not use much red in a painting?

Dan said...

Adding to Keith's question: I've always wondered why greens are problematic in the first place. Does anybody really know?

The problem seems to be: If we mix our greens to match what we see, the result is somehow overbearing in a painting. So greens seem to be deliberately toned down, ignored, or juxtaposed with reds. But why should this be?

Especially, why should this be a problem peculiar to painting, evidently not a problem with photography? This fact would seem to suggest that the problem isn't with greens per se. When they are represented accurately in a photograph, it doesn't seem to bother us. Perhaps the problem is in the difficulty of painting accurately with greens, especially as regards relative values?

It is said that in full light, the eye is most sensitive to greens and yellows. This doesn't mean that greens and yellows appear brighter to us than other colors. It means that we can perceive them more easily. For example, it means a smaller amount of green light will register on the eye and be clearly seen as such. And so we probably perceive subtle changes in value more acutely in the green and yellow ranges. Perhaps this sensitivity to subtleties makes it harder to "fool" the eye in these ranges, which might account for why a color-accurate photograph with strong greens looks okay to us?

Or maybe this "strength" of greens makes it very difficult to duplicate their values correctly when we are trying to achieve the right chroma. We get a strong impression in nature of saturated greens, even at a distance (due to that green sensitivity), and going for that saturation with our pigments leads to lighter values than are really called for, whereas toning them down helps us get the values right?

I wonder.

Do any of you experts know what the cause of this problem with greens is?

Shaun Stipick said...

Dan beat me to it! My comment was along the same vain but is now a moot point. All good points Dan.

I will add this. Green can be difficult to get high chromas at light values with, all while maintaining the integrity of the hue. A single hue object like a green pepper is a great example of this. I think green and many of its permutations are hues where the object's chroma in relation to value often exceeds what paint can do. So the artist has to either, reduce/compress the value and potentially lose some of the form, reduce the chroma and keep form, or venture into another hue with the intentions of possibly getting just enough of a value bump with out too huge of a hue shift and hopefully maintaining strong enough chroma. Take into account our acute sensitivity to green hues and one can see where all of this might add up and become potentially problematic and confusing.

Oh and my moot comment is below:

I wonder if our sensitivity to green and its troublesome hue based properties as artists has any correlation with our expanded optical sensitivity to green wavelengths of light. Seems like a natural and easy conclusion to come to. We as humans, according my research, are capable of deciphering more shades of green than other color. It is also one of the reasons why the output of night vision goggles are most often green. It may have something to do with occupying a world with an abundance of green, maybe a bias towards specific wavelengths emitted by our resident star, or maybe just a combination of many aspects that conveniently add up to a predilection towards green hues. Who knows? I certainly don't, but I would suspect there is a connection.

Judy P. said...

Such an interesting post, and all the comments left, as well- thanks James!
For me a salient point was 'Rico was also interesting in the way he left little white dots on the picture, which gives it a little sparkle'. Do you think leaving the white spots when painting with oils on canvas weave, can have this effect as well? I don't always tone my canvas, and am not sure if those little white spots are distracting, or perhaps in the right passage, enhancing. They sure can be a pain to cover all of them over.

rroseman said...

Here is a link to a blog on pastel painting about green by Richard McKinley ..he has a lot of posts on handling green in landscape worth reading. Hope this helps

Kevin D Smith said...

The website has a very useful essay on mixing green. Here is the link: I believe the author/artist's name is Bruce MacEvoy.

I think pthalo green makes colors that are usually too intense when mixed with yellow, but can be useful and inexpensive (compared to viridian) when mixed with anything else.

I like a split primary palette and use ultramarine and pthalo blue green shade to anchor blue.

I think a purple paint such as cobalt violet, dioxazine violet, ultramarine violet or manganese violet can really help to quickly and easily lessen the chroma of mid green to yellow-green.

James Gurney said...

Great comments, everyone. Dan and Shaun, I should have linked to my previous post, "The Green Problem," where I discuss the age-old prejudice against the color. The sources of the problem are a bit mysterious. Some great landscape painters have written eloquently about how to handle green effectively. If you can get a hold of Asher Durand's "Letters on Landscape Painting," (reprinted by Darren Rousar on Amazon), he addresses the topic and basically says to use variety in mixtures.

Dan said...

I've read Asher Durand's "Letters," and got quite a bit out of them. Somehow I still feel that the true nature of "The Green Problem" is elusive. I appreciated the link to the other blog entry, and all the comments there are very interesting as well.

One theory that seemed to vaguely impress itself on the back of my mind as I read the other post and comments has to do with the possibility that greens in a painting either are or feel "out of gamut," and thus non-harmonious. This is sort of the vague sense I get from the demonstration painting posted there.

Our pigments can only reproduce a fraction of the colors we see, and I suppose this doesn't bother us because our vision somehow calibrates to the gamut. Maybe if we try to find the best approximation of every color we see given the pigments we have chosen, we do well, right up to the point where we are mixing greens. There we are perhaps able to achieve a level of intensity with our pigments (maybe due to our extra sensitivity to the color) that looks consistent with what we are seeing, but that pushes out of the gamut of the rest of the painting. A camera would not do this because it's designed for a mathematically specific mapping of actual colors into the gamut of the sensor or film. (And dyes used in photo printing don't tend to be as intense as artist's pigments in general.)

At any rate, it seems plausible to me that the problem is that we use a certain approach to mixing colors that obtains good results, except in the greens, where it's somehow insufficient. The greens of nature are pleasing in the context of actual nature, where they are juxtaposed with all the other colors and values. Taken out of that context, we must put them next to mere approximations of those neighboring colors and values. If the color limitations of paint are somehow less evident in the greens, they will look too saturated in that context.

An interesting point is that even in photography it's said that colors in a photo taken in bright sunlight all tend to look too saturated when projected in a dim room against a dark background. The colors may have been reproduced correctly, but they don't read well out of context. This phenomenon is well understood by colorists in the movie industry.

Still, there is the observation that strong greens look "acidic," and that the color itself, even out of any context, bothers some people. Green is the color most associated with poison, or with sickness. Recently my son was drawing zombies, and he gave a greenish tint to their skin to achieve that "undead" look.

It may be that the nature of the problem is elusive because there are multiple factors involved.

Speaking of the movie industry, one of my favorite recent films is Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." It was shot on Super 16mm film, and then a digital intermediate process was used, and color adjustments were made digitally. The entire film was deliberately given a definite yellow green cast, though it isn't terribly saturated. I didn't find the color cast bothersome at all.

Diego Conte said...

Thank you a lot Mr. Gurney! I was out traveling to Ireland, so I couldn't thank you on time... great answers and comments everyone, amazingly helpful.

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Gurney said...

Michael, thanks for mentioning Harry Stooshinoff. I wasn't aware of his work, and his use of color and shape is really original and inspiring.