The Perfect Green, Part 2

We left off last time at the end of the seventeenth century, with an increase in landscape painting.  The green pigments available at that time were simply not up to the challenging task of depicting the pure, intense greens found in nature.  Lamented Samuel van Hoogstraten:

I wish that we had a green pigment as good as a red or yellow.  Green earth is too weak, Spanish green [verdigris] too crude and ashes [green verditer] not sufficiently durable.(1)

Greens can, of course, be created by mixing blue and yellow, or glazing yellow over blue.  It’s something I’ve done very little of, still the method preferred by many painters, and something I should really experiment with more.  The green that comes out of a tube is rarely exactly the right shade.  But, just like purple, ready-mixed greens are beyond handy.

Little wonder, then, that the next bright green to appear was incredibly popular, even though it was also incredibly poisonous.

Emerald green is another color that’s only available as a “hue” today, generally based on the ubiquitous phthalo.  The original was synthesized in 1814 by Wilhelm Sattler and Friedrich Russ by combining verdigris with vinegar, white arsenic, and sodium carbonate.  The product: copper aceto-arsenite.  It was cheap and easy to produce, which made it popular for interior decorating, with predictable and terrible results.  Dust and fumes released from cheaply printed emerald green wallpaper were even linked to the deaths of several children in London in the 1860s.(2)

Philip Ball reports that there is no record of other hazardous pigments, like the lead-based reds and whites commonly used since ancient times, having significant effects on the health of artists,(3) and likewise he says nothing about arsenic pigments (not just emerald green, but orpiment and realgar) being harmful to artists in particular.  It still amazes me that artists continued to use emerald green after an alternative became available: emerald green and viridian appear side-by-side in the works of the Impressionists.(4)

Viridian, hydrated chromic oxide, was first synthesized in France in 1838, and was a favorite of Paul Cézanne.(5)  My standby, its predecessor chrome oxide green, was discovered in 1809 (meaning it predates even emerald green), but it’s a duller shade.  It’s brighter and bluer than olive green, and also very opaque, while viridian is somewhat more transparent.  I enjoy using chrome oxide green partly because it mixes well with yellows and browns to create the muted tones of evergreens growing in a dry climate.  In fact, that’s where this blog gets its name!

However, muted colors like this weren’t a sought-after effect in the early nineteenth century, and chrome oxide green did not attain any great popularity with painters, although it was widely used in enamels and glazes for ceramics.  Viridian, however, was bright enough that it quickly replaced emerald green for domestic and industrial uses after large-scale production began in earnest in 1859.(6)

This digital image of Cézanne’s “Bridge over the Pond” (1895-1898) doesn’t capture the great variety of greens he used to give a sense of depth and lushness, but it does show some of the strength and brilliance of emerald.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Says Stefania Lapenta of this painting:

Filled with light, its expressive possibilities are multiplied by the incredible variety of tones the painter employs.  But the vast range of greens, ochers, yellows, and blues, all employed to create this powerful symphony of trees and plants, can only furnish a provisional description of the scene, as the painting is barely able to contain the vista in the narrow limitations of the canvas.(7)

You’d be hard pressed to single out any one tree from all the greenery here, but the forest has a distinct density–an effect which Cézanne strove to produce, and which he felt set him apart from the Impressionists,(8) although their influence is particularly clear in this painting compared to some of his others.   It may not be “realistic,” but it’s profoundly convincing.  Apart from the bridge and the shore of the lake, there are very few lines–color and tonal value are doing most of the work, even more so than in many of Cézanne’s other landscapes, like “Turning Road at Montgeroult” (1898):

File:Paul Cézanne 212.jpg

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Chrome oxide and viridian are both still available, although I’ve had some trouble finding the latter in acrylics (just because a particular brand makes a particular pigment doesn’t mean a given retailer will carry it).  I have also seen cobalt and perylene greens, but have no experience with either.  The main modern green pigment, a complex organic compound called chlorinated copper phthalocyanine, is a 1950s variation on phthalo blue, which was serendipitously discovered in 1928 but not widely used until the late 1930s.  The ring-shaped structure of the phthalocyanine molecule is similar to that of chlorophyll,(8) but the phthalo colors are extremely intense, and need to be mixed carefully with other colors for natural-looking results.

To be fair, a Google Images search for “pure chlorophyll” turns up some pretty odd-looking stuff.


1.  S. van Hoogstraten, quoted in J. Kirby & D. Saunders, “Sixteenth- to Eighteenth-Century Green Colours in Landscape and Flower Paintings: Composition and Deterioration,” in Contributions to the IIC Dublin Congress, p. 155.  Quoted in Philip Ball, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 141.

2.  Ball, Bright Earth, 155.

3.  Ibid., 150.

4.  Ibid., 181-183, 192.

5.  Ibid., 157.

6.  Ibid., 157.

7.  Stefania Lapenta, ed., Cézanne, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2005), 150.

8.  Roy Bolton, A Brief History of Painting: 2000 BC to AD 2000 (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), 218.

9.  Ball, Bright Earth, 226.


One thought on “The Perfect Green, Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Real Turner’s Yellow | Chrome Oxide Visual Arts

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