Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mixing Greens

At the Orchard's Edge, 14 x 16 inches, oil on linen

Mixing greens is, obviously, a huge part of painting landscapes. If you don't have control over your greens, you can't get very far, can you. When I teach landscape painting workshops, this is one of the topics that gets a lot of attention. It's basic, and one of the big hurdles that a painter must overcome in order to make his painting look believable.

One of the problems that I come across often with beginning painters is the expectation that there is somehow a recipe for mixing greens. We need to get past the thinking that there are specific ways to mix greens for an oak tree, and another for grass, still another for eucalyptus trees. 

If a student has the mindset that he just needs to mix the greens that he sees regardless of what type of tree, he's better off, for he's thinking in formal, abstract terms and not recipes. And if he can learn to differentiate one green from the next, and mix any subtle variations that he sees, that's a worthy skill. 

But painting is not about copying what you see. It's about expressing what you see / think / feel about the view in front of you or in your head. On the other hand, the skills required to paint a specific shade of green  that you want to see on your canvas is absolutely essential. Does that make sense? You don't want to copy what's in front of you, but the skills necessary to do just that, is absolutely essential. It does not mean it's OK to mix thoughtlessly and rationalize it by saying that you're expressing what you feel.   Of course you really could be expressing the green you see in your mind's eye, but only you know if you're being absolutely honest with yourself, and if you're trying to paint representationally, the painting still need to be convincing.

Still A Few Remaining, 14 x 18 inches, oil on linen

I don't mean to go into a rant on this post, but I just wanted to make that point clear. If you have to have really, really good control over mixing colors, you have to do it carefully and thoughtfully. If you've seen your favorite painter mix his greens haphazardly, it may just be because he's done it a million times and can achieve a specific result very quickly. It doesn't mean we should match his speed! You'll get faster as you gain experience, but speed should never be the goal.

Please pardon my lecturing tone - I just had a big discussion about this with a student, and I'm still in the mode and I just wanted to get all this down before I forget.

Let's get to some practical stuff.

I have the same tube colors on my palette, whether I'm painting a sunny scene or a cloudy one. I have the same set of colors, for that matter, if I'm painting a cityscape, or a figure, even. My strategy to painting varied greens is not to have specific greens out of the tube. No Viridian on my palette, no Sap Green.  Instead, I have three blues, three yellows, and three reds, and I just mix all my secondaries from these. My palette looks like this;

  • Titanium White


  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Prussian Blue
  • Paynes Grey
  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Permanent Red
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Transparent Red Oxide
If you'll notice, it's a primaries palette, with three variation of each of the primaries; warm, cool, and low chroma. Whether the Prussian is warmer or cooler than the Ultramarine is up for debate, but I just think of them as green-leaning, and violet-leaning. 

A couple of things to note; Every brand has a different name for Transparent Red Oxide. It's essentially a synthetic red oxide. Most of the time I use Gamblin's Transparent Earth Red, but other brands' versions are similar. 

I sometimes substitute Ivory Black for Paynes Grey. 

I sometimes use a mixture of Cad Lemon + Transparent Red Oxide instead of Cad Yellow Deep.

Napa Farm, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen sold

May be the most obvious thing I should say about mixing greens is that trees are darker than grass. Seems obvious, but may a beginning painter get this wrong. It's because they forget to compare the two. It isn't always true, to be sure, but it's true most of the time. Just observe and you see that there's a big difference. Not because Carlson said verticals are darker than the ground plane, either. (though that's true most of the time) It's simpler than that; the local values are significantly different. At least where I live, most of the trees that I see are either evergreens, Live Oaks, or Eucalyptus. Aspens and Birches can be very light in value, so it's not an automatic decision. You simply have to look and compare. 

Take the Shortcut, 12 x 21 inches, oil on linen

I tend to mix greens by identifying the hue-direction and relative value at the same time. If it's a dull, dark green, I might reach for Ultramarine + Cad Deep. Since Ultramarine is red-leaning, the resulting green is grayed down. 

If I'm looking for a lighter green that still leans toward blue, I may add white to the same mix. 

If I need it to be warmer, like in the late afternoon, I would first mix the local color green (the green of the thing itself) and start adding the color of the light - more yellows and reds. 

If I need a really intense green, I'd use a green-leaning blue (Prussian) + a green-leaning yellow (Cad Lem) and leave the reds out of it. 

I almost always mix a little bit of white in the lit areas, but not in the shadow areas. Unless I'm doing a high-key painting where there are a lot of colors  in the shadows.

You have to be careful with the white, because while it helps to lighten the value, it also cools the color. You don't want to have a cool light - warm shadow situation when the opposite is called for. 

The deepest, darkest greens are so dark that it almost doesn't matter whether it looks green or not, as long as it's harmonious and transparent. My favorite mixes here are Ultramarine + Transparent Oxide Red, or Prussian + Transparent Oxide Red. The latter actually looks green, so it's very effective.

The darkest darks are essentially where the light doesn't reach - not only the sunlight, but no ambient or reflected light reaches either. If an area is so dark that you can't make out any detail or color information, I paint it transparently. If I can still see detail or identify color, I paint it opaquely even if it's in the shadow - I don't paint details, but being able to see them is a deciding factor. 

All the greens you see in the paintings I've posted today, are mixed from the same set of tube colors that I listed. By combining different yellows and blues, and may be some reds (to warm up the color or to dull it down), you can get endless variations on the color green. 

You might jsut take an afternoon to see how many different greens you can mix with palette. You should easily be able to mix dozens of them. Just take your time, observe, and practice mixing. Once you become familiar with what kinds of greens are possible with these tube colors, the greens will become power tools for expression, rather than nasty problems to overcome each time you face the canvas!

Happy Mixing!