All Kinds of Green

When someone asks me if my studio is ‘green,’ what they probably are asking is whether or not I’m keeping the environment in mind as I develop my process. My first instinct, however, is to respond ‘do you mean Emerald Green, Forest Green, or perhaps more of a Pistachio?’

Green was first used as a pigment by the Egyptians, after which it became a popular choice for the cultures of antiquity because of its positive associations with the living world. Throughout history, we can find green used as a symbol of birth, regeneration, growth, and life. Our word green grew out of the Old English grene which shares Germanic roots with words like grow and grass. In French, vert comes from the Latin viridis meaning to sprout.

As our knowledge of chemistry progressed, the pigments available to artists have blossomed into a dizzying array of hues like aquamarine, British racing green, chartreuse, verdigris and the scandalous sounding hooker’s green. Kelly green hearkens to Ireland in all her lushness, and one can’t help but feel a little hungry when painting with apple, lime, avocado, and mint green.

It is interesting to note that the idea of these varied colours is largely cultural. The Chinese symbol for green, for instance, is the same as the one for blue. There are cultures in the world that have no specific words for either green or blue, and at least one culture that doesn’t appear to have a word for colour at all, despite the fact that the people themselves enjoy making bright red pigments for face paint and use colourful feathers as earrings. It seems colours can be enjoyed even without linguistic clarity.

When I sit down at my easel to paint, it’s hard sometimes to know if it’s best to go with the permanent bright green or the viridian hue. Personally, I can’t handle the jewel tones at full strength, so I’m always mixing in white for opacity and a drop of black or red to remove some energy. All these colour choices taken individually are small ones, but they grow to be very important as the picture emerges. Olivine carries a different subtext than permanent bright green. Do I want to paint a fog-bound conifer or a freshly-sprouted fern? Making the correct selection contributes to a cohesive feeling in the finished piece.

It’s exciting and important that our culture has grown this rich language of colour. It’s a signal that we are seeing, and understanding the microcosms around us and giving them nuanced names. It’s a symbol of growth in our collective psyche.

On a somewhat larger scale, when I picture how I want our world to look in a hundred years, I still want artists to be able to know first-hand the distinction between moss green and sea green. I want them to look out their windows and be inspired by the incredible diversity of colour on display in nature. I hope that when a landscape painter puts together their palette it’s not all desert brown and concrete grey.

Lately, I’ve found it difficult to feel optimistic about the future. I’ve been thinking about ways I can make an impact, and I realize that the only practical steps I can take are the small ones: use the car less, sort my recycling carefully, teach my kids about nature, bring my own bags to the grocery store, and try to live simply, for starters. We are truly rich in this part of the world, most of us don’t truly understand ‘need.’ Now it’s time for me (for all of us!) to do more than paint with green pigment and to get better at being green. Once we start seeing those little ways we can contribute, it will add up to a bright, green future. Like the artist’s decision to use olive green instead of sap green, the effect is subtle but critical.

Let’s make sure the painters of the future have a landscape to paint, and a choice of many greens in their palette. These actions are small, but they could be the difference between muddy mess and masterpiece.