Thursday, June 30, 2011

Painting in a green world

A photo from my archives of a woodland pond in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire

I think that summer is the hardest season to paint outside. It is just way too much green for me. I do some green paintings, but I don't want to make a whole seasons worth of them. One or two in a show is fine, but a whole room full of green paintings is not. I have crashed a lot of paintings in the greenness. I always think I won't do it again and every year I make at least one painting that is nice but too green.

I am not the only landscape painter to feel this way, lots of them have and there are some strategies to avoid the problem. Here are a few that come to mind.
  • If you must paint in a green hell, try to vary the greens and tone them down too. A green plus red is called olive, Savor those the more red you can smuggle in their the better often. The violets in the shadows aren't green either so they also serve as a foil. Ask yourself would I wear this color? There are colors in paintings you wouldn't wear, but with the greens the question is more relevant.
  • Historically artists have turned their backs to the green. Many of the art colonies of America started in seaside towns. Artists who painted the hills of New England in the fall and winter painted the harbors or surf in the summer. The ocean is a great place to be when it is too green out there.
  • Woods and fields can be a nightmare, but in the evening the lengthening light and the gathering darkness begin to drop the saturation of some of the green. In the late hours lots of too green places become paintable.
  • Gardens are great place to paint in the summer. They are green but if you have flowers, paths, shadows or evening light, there are endless good garden pictures to be made. Most people who have fine perennial beds are flattered and will to allow an artist to paint their gardens. I have knocked on strangers doors.
  • Try to look for big shapes that aren't green, such as a colored house or a yellow field or gray out buildings, any thing that you can use so that at least an important part of the canvas isn't painted green.
  • Another solution is to cripple your ability to mix green. Restrict yourself to an earth color palette or at least mix all of your own greens from ultramarine. If you are restrained in the presentation of the greens in a landscape rather than literal, usually better paintings result.
  • Beaches with people in swimsuits and lolling indolently under big colorful umbrellas are a great subject. I do not mean take photos there and use those in the studio, no friends, I suggest you set your easel up on the beach in the sunlight.
  • Sometimes it helps to stain your canvas with a warm earth color before painting, you might rub it down with burnt sienna and a little solvent, using a paper towel. The influence of that wet layer of sienna particularly if it gets into the notes layed onto it can be a welcome modifier when things go green.
Sorry to miss a day there. I am as is so often the case, way overworked. I have a deadline I must meet on a big painting and I am traveling all over. I am glad to know I will be home for a while. I have a studio full of half finished paintings and I want to hole up with them until the green fades or more likely I go to the sea. Painting surf is a great way to avoid all of that green too.


Cara said...

Green is my favorite color but you're right - you can easily drown in a sea of green.

Bob Carter said...

Remind me again, who said "Nature is too green and badly lit." said...

Deb!..good to see that you are still there. The reports aren't very good.

Stapleton, we agree more that disagree (but disagreeing so much more fun).. I always say "green, green everywhere and not a spot to paint." One of the very important lessons I learned on this blog is how to restrain green. it's surprising how much more natural it looks than what is out there.

Rumors have it that Willek is headed for the shore and I may get out there with him.

jeff said...

One of my foils is to paint storms in summer. Plenty of thunder storms in New England and I tend to like to paint drama of the changing sky's. That way the weather becomes the subject and not the greenery.

I also use a lot of sky in the summer as well to offset the green.

I only mix greens from blues and yellows and reds. I use Cobalt, Ultramarine and Cerulean and Cobalt Violet. I also use a lot of grays.

Philip Koch said...

Excellent post, once again.

If I had my way we'd abolish late spring and summer entirely, but I realize that's not a universal sentiment.

Maybe the one debt I owe that nasty green chlorophyl (other than giving me oxygen to breathe) is it made me realize an artist has to be inventive with his or her color at least some of the time. One time Wolf Kahn told me that when he's up at his farm in Vermont he's "painting in the bottom of a salad bowl."

willek said...

A timely post. Thanks, Stape.

Libby Fife said...

It isn't easy being green...:)

Thank goodness for other objects and things in the landscape; sky, clouds, weather, buidlings, and roads, and thank goodness for a limited palette.

Rae said...

I feel like I'm trapped in OZ. My solution is to go to Wales and paint the coast. No green to worry about. Rain is another matter.

Jesse said...

I just got back from a trip around your neck of the woods. Have you ever painted around 5/Westminster? I wish I had time and an easel with me, I could have had a heyday.

With all the rain in the NW and NE, the greens are staying pretty strong this year.

stapeliad said...

My philosophy on green: if it's green it is either really good or really moldy.

Last weekend I painted on the beach for the very first time, it was such a peaceful experience.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your great words of wisdom. I live in the pacific nw and green is often the ONLY color to be seen. I really get tired of green and fight it, but so much of our beautiful landscape is covered in it.

billspaintingmn said...

Green does look best outside. This summer is especially green. I was on the lake the other day and saw a
lot of it.(Even the fish are green!)
Your bulleted advice is well taken.

There are exceptions to rules, What would be the exception with green?

Stephanie Berry said...

Boy, I feel guilty on this one. My husband says "that green you like..." in not a complimenting way.

Brady said...

Where I live it's usually brown this time of year, so with almost 300% percent of snow and rain I'm enjoying the green. I hardly ever get to paint it in summer.

But I definitely get your point.

jeff said...

One thing to do is to paint at dawn and dusk. More bugs but better light effects and the greens are less pronounced. More violet and blues in the atmosphere.

Debra Norton said...

Very good advice Stape, I live at the base of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, I think it's the greenest place on earth!

knoxblox said...


You usually have a particular artist that you make example of when dealing with a certain problem.

Might I suggest Isaac Levitan for the "green hell" problem?

Kevin Menck said...

Come to Tennessee in the summer. You'll figure out green real quick.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I forget,I think it was a French guy. It will come to me, I have used the quote on the blog in fact.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Bob Carter

Stapleton Kearns said...;
Often things corrected in the studio are more "natural" than an exact reproduction of the actual place.

Stapleton Kearns said...

jeff ;
Those are all good tactics for reducing the green problem.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip Koch;
Thanks. I stay out of Vermont in the summer.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Are you at the shore?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Libby Fife;
Goodness, and man.

Stapleton Kearns said...

By all means go to Wales, jeesh.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I know about where that would be but I haven't painted there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The beach must have been deserted.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Try working just in earth colors.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The exception for me would be a painting deliberately set up to be a design of blues and greens alone, a decorative piece. I would still vary them, but keep them in the same family. See Whistlers peacock room.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Stephanie Berry;
Get him a sweater that color and tell him every time he wears it that he looks GREAT!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I love brown. But some green is OK fr a while. Enough is enough sometimes though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is the hour of the muse.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Debra Norton;
I bet you have great shore painting there for consolation.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There are a lot of plein air painters who do six months of green paintings a year.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Kevin Menck;
I'll bet.

Sue said...

Come to Utah and paint red rocks and sage brush!

J Hopper said...

Yes indeed - you and Georgia O'Keeffe! and yes- painting right on the beach is the best! Embrace the greens :0)

Bonnie Hamlin said...

Thanks to Wikipedia:
Boucher is famous for saying that nature is "trop verte et mal éclairée" (too green and badly lit). Francois Boucher died on 30 May 1770 in Paris