Tube greens (left) vs. mixed greens (right).
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Better Landscape Greens

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.



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