Phthalo Green—How To Tame It

swatch showing mixtures of phthalo green, quin gold deep, azo yellow and ultramarine blue

In the last post, I offered some tips for mixing natural-looking landscape greens, the first of which was “avoid tube greens involving phthalo green”.

So, what do you do with the phthalo green (and mixtures using it) you already have? The secret is to tame it a bit so it works for you instead of just taking over the entire painting.

Here’s how:

Mix Something With Phthalo Green to Warm It Up

As you learned in the last post, phthalo green usually needs to be “warmed up” and neutralized to work as a natural-looking landscape green. Try mixing it with various reds, oranges, yellows and even warm purples to see if you get any greens you like for foliage.

In each of the swatches below, I’ve put phthalo green on the left and gradually added more and more of pyrrole red, indian yellow (Daniel Smith), hansa yellow and quinacridone gold deep (Daniel Smith).

I’ve indicated the brand for the two colors—indian yellow and quin gold deep—that are themselves pre-mixed “convenience” colors, because each manufacturer has their own take on these mixtures, so they can vary a lot from one manufacturer to another. But don’t go out and buy my colors. Just try whatever reds, oranges, browns, golds and yellows you happen to have.


trying to calm phthalo green
Mixing phthalo green with warmer colors.


Some of these mixtures might be usable for a natural-looking landscape green, and if I keep playing around, I’m bound to find more.

Use Phthalo Green to “Green Up” Other Mixtures

Another thing you can do is use your phthalo green as an “flavoring agent” for other greens. By this, I mean you can take one of your own mixtures—say, quin gold deep and ultramarine blue, or azo yellow and ultramarine blue—that might be a tad too dull for some situations, and use a little bit of your phthalo green to “green it up” a bit. Try adding just a little bit at a time, like adding a strong seasoning to a soup.

swatch showing mixtures of phthalo green, quin gold deep, azo yellow and ultramarine blue
Using phthalo green to “green up” your own mixed greens.

The secret to doing this successfully is simply to experiment until you get greens you like, and then using the same colors mix them again . . . and again . . . and again . . . until you can mix them easily. If you try to rely on “recipes”, you’ll never remember them. Instead you want to find a group of “go-to” colors that you know inside and out.

If you keep the number of colors you are working with SMALL (no more than 3 or 4 at a time!), this sort of practice takes minutes or hours, not days or weeks. Once you build this familiarity with a few colors, you’ll never have to think about how to mix them. You’ll just look at them and KNOW. (Soooo much more convenient than relying on those silly “color recipe” books!)

If you just finished Watercolor Jumpstart, I hope you are adding colors to your palette one at a time! If so, you might have one tube green that you just bought, and the original 5 colors from class (azo yellow, quin rose, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna).

This is plenty to make lots of great landscape greens (with or without a tube green involved), so if you are struggling with mixing greens don’t add any more until you feel completely comfortable with these.

Use Phthalo Green to Make Other Things Besides Green!

I’ve saved the best for last. My favorite use of phthalo green is to make various turquoise and “midnight blue” mixtures. This is actually the reason I have phthalo green on my palette.

Take a look at what phthalo green does when mixed with blues, violets and magentas. Oooh, I love, love, love these colors!  In fact, I love the mix with ultramarine blue so much I have been known to buy it premixed (Daniel Smith Ultramarine Turquoise).

MIxing phthalo green with magentas, violets and blues.
MIxing phthalo green with magentas, violets and blues.

You might have guessed that phthalo green + blue would give you a turquoise. The real surprise is that phthalo green + violet often gives a slate blue or midnight blue. This is where it really becomes evident how cool phthalo green really is. It has a LOT of blue-ish-ness to it. So the blue in the violet, plus the blue-ish-ness of the phthalo green, plus a bit of red from the violet results in a neutralized purplish blue or neutralized violet.

Unless the “violet” is really, really reddish. I added the Perylene Maroon as an example of that. In that case, there is enough red that instead of getting bluish mixtures, you actually get a pretty nice neutralized green that would be another good foliage green.

These soft, moody neutralized blue-violets and violets are great for reflections in water, and for suggesting shadows and twilight. I find them rather difficult to mix in other ways, but these mixtures are easy for me to mix reliably. (When I do use them in the shadow areas or water in a landscape, that’s when I might also add a subtle touch of phthalo green to my foliage greens for color harmony.)

So now you don’t have to toss those tube greens! Phthalo green doesn’t have to be allowed to barge in and take over. With a little knowledge and experimentation, it can become a trusted and valuable addition to your palette.

Have fun . . . and be green!


Better Landscape Greens

Tube greens (left) vs. mixed greens (right).

The weather is beautiful here. It’s the time of year when a lot of us are feeling that pull to take our paints and sketchbooks outside. It’s also the time of year that a lot of people struggle with GREEN!

Do the greens in your landscapes look flat and unnatural? The likely culprit is a powerful pigment that has sneaked onto your palette and taken over the green range: phthalocyanine green (just say “thalo” green).

You might be thinking, nope, no such color on my palette. But unless you check labels carefully, it might be there without your knowing.  Many manufacturers name it as their own green in its single-pigment form (or give it some fanciful name, like “Brilliant Emerald”). For example, “Winsor Green” and Cheap Joe’s “Joe’s Green” are both phthalocyanine green.

HINT: Get out your magnifying glass and look at those teeny little pigment codes on the label. If it says PG7 or PG36, it’s phthalocyanine green (PG7 is the cooler “blue shade” and PG36 is the slightly warmer “yellow shade”.)

This strong cold green is also a component of many manufacturers’ pre-mixed greens, so you might have it in “sap green”, “permanent green”, “emerald green” “leaf green”, “Hooker’s green”, “viridian hue”, etc.

So, what’s wrong with phthalo green?

Phthalo green is a very strong, pure, somewhat cool green. Take a look at the left side of the swatches below. That’s phthalo green. Not a color you see in many real leaves, is it?

Swatches showing mixtures of phthalo green and reds, oranges or warm yellows
Modifying phthalo green to get more natural foliage colors.


Think of all the brialliant reds, golds and oranges in fall leaves, or the lovely magenta in the stems and leaves of many plants. Although many plants make more of these pigments in the fall, they are there all year long. It’s just that most mature leaves have a lot of the green of chlorophyll mixed in, too. But the warmer colors ARE there. This means you need a little bit of red, orange, or magenta in the mix for your landscape greens to look natural.The presence of a bit of red (the complement of green) slightly grays or neutralizes the greens in foliage.

As you can see in the swatches above, mixing phthalo green with other colors does help to make it look more natural. This is what is done in many of the pre-mixed greens. Some of them have enough other things mixed in to look natural; others don’t. You have to experiment to find out which ones are natural-looking. You can’t go by the printed label, and also ,one manufacturer’s “sap green” may be nothing like another’s.

So, let’s suppose you manage to find a premixed green that does look natural. You’re all set now, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Real foliage—aven within a single plant—is not usually a single uniform green. So if you are going to use premixed greens, you need to either have a bunch of them.

Now, at this point, there are some of you thinking, I have three different natural-looking greens on my palette, and my foliage still looks unnatural. Why?

Because each of those mixtures has phthalo green as the base. In each individual mixture, it might be modified enough to look pretty good, but when you look at the whole painting, the common phthalo green is in everything, and it’s so powerful, it just takes over and dominates the overall look.

To get natural-looking, varied, lively greens, the solution is to simply mix your own! Most people buy premixed greens because they fear they will not be able to keep their own mixes of blue and yellow consistent. But actually, you want variety in the mixture, because that’s what happens in real foliage.

On the sample sheet below, I’ve put various premixed, purchased greens on the left, and greens I mixed myself from a blue and a yellow on the right. The first and last of the tube greens (Holbein’s leaf green and QoR sap green) actually look pretty natural, so it IS possible to find premixed greens that are natural-looking, but you wouldn’t want to use either as the only green in a landscape.

Tube greens (left) vs. mixed greens (right).
Tube greeens (on the left) often contain a lot of phthalo green. Greens you mix yourself (right) often look more natural.

Look at the variety of natural greens on the right. All of these were mixed using two yellows (azo yellow and hansa yellow) and two blues (ultramarine blue and anthroquinone blue, a.k.a. indanthrone or indanthrene blue). (All the samples were mixed with M. Graham brand watercolors; you might get somewhat different results with different brands.)

Check out the mixtures you can make with the blues and yellows you already have. If you’re having trouble getting an olive-green, try mixing a pure blue, like ultramarine blue or cobalt blue, with a somewhat orange-y yellow (e.g. “indian yellow” or “new gamboge”). Or try a pure yellow, like azo yellow, with a slightly purplish blue, like ultramarine violet. This gets a teeny bit of red into the mix in a controllable way.

If you’re having trouble getting a cool green for something like a fir tree, try mixing a warmer green and then adding  a touch of burnt sienna to it. Burnt sienna is a neutralized red-orange, so that also adds a teeny bit of red.

If you’re putting together a field palette, you don’t want to add a ton of colors. Certainly not four or five pre-mixed greens. For most of us, we either have all we need already, or the addition of a carefully chosen yellow or blue will round things out. Your landscapes and florals will look more natural and you’ll have less to cart around.



Paint Shapes, Not “Things”

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.

Want your paintings to look unified? It helps to combine “things” into larger shapes, and then use smaller shapes to (partially) separate them. Here’s an exercise to help you practice.

First, set up a still life with a couple of simple objects. Avoid anything that has a lot of pattern, texture, reflections or complicated edges—you want to be able to capture the overall silhouette fairly easily. A couple of pieces of fruit or simple vegetables work well. Or a couple of eggs or smooth stones.

If you like more geometric shapes, you could include things like a simple mug or bowl, or a little box. Try to stay away from anything that will tempt you to get caught up in details or worries over getting the right proportions, so you can stay focused on the main point of the exercise.

Use a desk lamp or a sunny window to set up your still life with a single strong light source, so you have some definite shadows.

Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.
Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.


Next, using a graphite pencil or watercolor pencil, whichever you prefer, lightly draw the outer silhouette only of the objects and their shadows. Most people find it quite difficult to draw just the outer silhouette, so alternately, you could draw everything, and then erase all the interior lines. In the example below, I’ve drawn the lines in ink so they’ll show up in the photo, but you’ll want to make faint pencil lines, just dark enough for you to see where to put your first wash.

Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I've used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.
Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I’ve used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.

Next, fill in the entire silhouette with ONE wash. By “one wash” I mean that you DO NOT stop at the “edge” of any of the objects! Just keep right on going. The entire area should be wet all at the same time.

However, you can change value and color as you go. If you have objects of two different colors, the colors will bleed into one another, but that will actually work to your advantage. By the same token, the color of the objects will bleed into the shadow areas, and that also is a good thing. (To see a more dramatic example of how this works in multiple colors, you might want to watch the Bowl and Lemons demo from my Watercolor Jumpstart class.)

I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing, so don't try to prevent it.
I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing. It will actually help us suggest reflected light, and the overall lighting in the scene, so don’t try to prevent it.

If you haven’t done the Bowl and Lemons exercise, you might find it helpful to paint along with me on that exercise before trying this one. In the Bowl and Lemons exercise, I have made the decisions about what shapes to paint for you. In this exercise, it will be up to you to find the smaller shapes to layer over your first wash to help the viewer distinguish individual “things”.

Next, I’ve chosen to paint the “shadow side” of both pears as one shape. To help me see the overall “shapes” that make up these “things” I use the standard artist trick of squinting until all the detail is lost and all I can see are the larger shapes that make up my setup.

I also lifted a little color on the pear in back to suggest the small highlight. And, because I was hurrying a bit, the shadow under the pear in front was still wet, so my new shape bled into that area. I didn’t worry about that, because I know that I will be layering another shape on top to make the shadows on the table, so that little bleed will get covered up.

As I add new shapes, I keep reminding myself to leave at least some of the previous layer untouched. Doing this helps me resist the temptation to endlessly “fix” stuff by going over the entire first wash and keeps the painting looking fresher.

The new shape layered over the first wash.
The new shape layered over the first wash.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.

Next, I painted another layer over the cast shadows on the table, (plus darkening the stem on the pear in back and adding the little blossom end on the pear in front).

Notice I only needed a small shape to make it possible for the viewer to see the separation between the two pears. Make it a goal to use as little as possible to “separate” two objects. Most of us want to do WAY more than necessary!

The shapes I added in the third layer.
The shapes I added in the third layer.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to "separate" the two pears.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to “separate” the two pears.

Finally, I darkened the shadow side of the pear in front, added the small, dark shadows directly below each pear, and the dark stem on the pear in front.

Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.
Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.

Done! At this point we can see the two pears as two separate “things” sitting on a surface, casting shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.
Done! At this point, you can see the pears as two separate “things” with cast shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

It’s quite a challenge to learn to see this way, so don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time with this exercise at first. Instead of laboring over each layer, and going back to “fix” your work, give yourself a short time limit—say 5 minutes—to complete each attempt, and then change things around and try again.

Remember, the goal here is to practice the technique, not “make a painting”. You don’t have to show these to anyone, so push yourself to see just how little you can do to suggest things by layering smaller and smaller shapes. Try hard not to ever entirely cover up a previous shape!

Don’t make this a chore! Use it as a warm-up, or when you only have a few minutes to paint. Set a timer, and when the timer goes off, give yourself permission to be done with it.

The more you do this, the more you’ll tune in to this way of looking at the world while planning your paintings. And you’ll also be gaining confidence in the power of a few small shapes to dramatically change how your paintings look, which will help you relax and paint more freely and boldly. And who doesn’t want that? 🙂



New Watercolor Mandala Template

One example of using the mandala template in this article.

I know some of you enjoy using the templates I create for my Watercolor Prayer/Meditation Mandala Mini-Retreats. I created a new one that was very popular at the last mini-retreat, so I decided to share it with you here. This one has some larger open areas for you to add shapes, lettering or images of your own.

One example of using the mandala template in this article.
One example of using the mandala template in this article.

The first image below is the full design, intended for a 16×16″ sheet of watercolor paper or board. The template is for one quarter of the overall design. You can either print out 4 copies and tape them together before tracing the entire design, or you can trace one quarter of the design at a time, until you have traced all 4 corners.

The second image is just the center portion of the larger design, which works well on its own on a smaller sheet of paper (say 8×8″ to 12×12″). There is a download link under each image, to download the template as a PDF file. (If you’re reading this in an email, you will need to click on the article’s title to go to my website in order to be able to make the download links work.)

Enjoy! (Love to see images of your completed mandala—please share images in the comments section!)

4-fold spiral
Download template for the large 4-fold spiral mandala.



4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8" diameter and smaller.
4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8″ diameter and smaller.
Download template for the small 4-fold spiral mandala.

Another New Watercolor Jumpstart Video—Bowl and Lemons

Bowl and lemons demo painting.

Here’s another little project from the Watercolor Jumpstart class. The main purpose of this exercise is to practice connecting “things” into larger shapes using washes that connect several shapes into one larger shape even when the shapes are different colors!

In this activity, we practice painting one large wash over the entire silhouette of the bowl, the two lemons and their shadows, allowing the colors to mingle where the shapes overlap. Rather than being the disaster you might think, allowing this mingling actually helps create a sense of reflected light and works to our advantage. We use smaller washes layered on top of our overall wash to show parts of the edges of objects and help separate them and create a sense of depth.

In this project, you will also get a chance to practice softening edges (both while they are wet and after they dry) and lifting soft highlights (thirsty brush, blotting with towel and after the wash is dry).

>h4>Connecting “Things” Into Larger Shapes with Multi-Colored Washes (The Bowl and Lemons Project)

Download Reference Photo for Bowl and Lemons Project

New Beginning Watercolor Videos–Intro to Washes and Glazing

I’ve added a few new videos to the Watercolor Jumpstart Series.

To make it easier to find them later, they’re also available on the new “How-To Videos” page, which you can find in the menu bar at the top of my website, and on the Watercolor Jumpstart class page under the “Classes” link in the menu bar at the top of my website.


Watercolor Jumpstart 7—Laying a Flat Wash and a Graduated Wash (2 methods)

Watercolor Jumpstart 8—Glazing Over a Previous Wash to Darken or Modify It

Watercolor Jumpstart 9—A Monochrome “Silhouette” Painting (The Kayaker Project)

Download Reference Photo for Kayaker Project