The Perfect Green, Part 1

I’ve added a new painting of Mount Temple to the Studio Page, but that isn’t what I want to write about today.

I tend to have several books on the go, and so I’m still reading Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), at the same time as I’ve been on a color-related quest of my own.  The weather hasn’t been great this week, but I have had a couple of chances to get out and paint.  All the moisture we’ve had lately has had two major effects on my experience of plein-air painting.

First, and less germane: there are mosquitoes everywhere.  Until this week, I really didn’t think mosquitoes were that interested in me…but they are, and my elbows hold a special fascination for them, even though I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt for both of my two painting sessions today.

Second, this is the time of year when Alberta is at its greenest.  Nose Hill, usually a tawny expanse that lies like a sleeping lion in the northern part of Calgary, is full of tantalizing, intense green hues.  Tall grass with sunlight pouring through it from behind is completely different from short grass growing out of thick mud.  Where the leaves of the aspens overlap each other they cast deep, bluish shadows on one another, while later in the evening the golden light turns the darkest reaches of the trees brown.  At midday, the colors of a clearing on the hillside, hemmed in by trees, are so bright and pure it almost hurts to look at them.

It’s a reminder that successful landscape art is more than just the imitation of nature.  This is nature that resists faithful imitation.  Yet as impossible as it seems when I’m out for a run, just observing with few distractions, I’m compelled to haul out the portable easel later and give it a try.

(I can’t post the result.)

On WetCanvas I’ve seen that there are many, many artists who are better at this than I am.  Maybe the prospect is especially daunting since I’ve spent the last several months painting snow, rocks, and the dark, drab greens of pines and spruces in winter.  However, I’m not the first to find it difficult to create the perfect green.

According to Bright Earth, this quest began in the Stone Age, when cave painters used naturally occurring minerals such as glauconite as their green pigments.(1)  These aluminosilicate clays were still in use in the seventeenth century.(2)  Ball says little else about them, but this site (which is the one that first interested me in the history of artistic techniques, as distinct from “art history”) reports that Vermeer used green earth, or terra verde, to depict shadows on flesh, a carry-over of the medieval technique of using a green underpainting to balance out the pink tones.(3)  Unfortunately, many medieval red pigments were organically derived and have faded away, leaving the figures greenish, as can be seen in this early fourteenth-century polyptych by Duccio di Buoninsegna:

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

The effect is much more subtle in Vermeer’s The Guitar Player (1672).  It’s especially noticeable in the shadow on the woman’s neck.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

(Not my favorite Vermeer painting.  To my eye, the objects are more interesting than the young woman, especially the stack of weathered books in the corner.)

Another ancient green pigment was verdigris–known in the Middle Ages as “verd de Grece,” although the ancient Greeks probably weren’t the first to use it.(4)  It was a synthetic pigment manufactured by a simple process: copper was placed in contact with vinegar or its fumes, and the resulting green patina was scraped off.(5)

Verdigris gradually fell out of favor for several reasons.  Substitutes were needed for manuscript illumination because the acids used to corrode copper into verdigris tended to eat through the parchment, so monks began to use sap green, which was simply the juice of the buckthorn berry.(6)  The modern “sap green” acrylic paint I’ve looked at has usually been a “convenience color” made with some combination of phthalo green and some kind of yellow.

Verdigris was also thought to react badly with lead white and orpiment (arsenic sulfide, a bright yellow mineral pigment), although this appears to be unfounded.(7)  The fact, discovered in the late fourteenth century, that it became dark and dull when mixed with oil, was not an insurmountable difficulty; verdigris or related copper salts were mixed with pine resin, which contains turpentine.(8)

Both verdigris and copper resinates were found inadequate with the rise of pure landscape painting in the late seventeenth century.(9)  What happened then?  Find out in Part 2 later this week.

I’ll also finally have another hiking post, and some more plein-air work, if all goes well tomorrow.


1.  Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 54.

2.  Ibid., 141.

3.  Jonathan Janson, “Green Earth,” Essential Vermeer, (accessed June 17, 2013).

4.  Ball, Bright Earth, 101.

5.  Ibid., 55-56.

6.  Ibid., 101.

7.  Ibid., 264.

8.  Ibid., 114-115.

9.  Ibid., 141.


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