Green Shoots

Alexandra Loske on a shapeshifting colour.

Spring has sprung, or will do soon, and I can’t stop thinking about one of the most beautiful and devastating lines of poetry in the English language: ‘time held me green and dying, as I sang in my chains like the sea’. It is from Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill (1945). The colour green here stands for childhood, the power of youth, innocence, and there is clearly a lot of the Welsh land-and-seascape in there. Yet death is mentioned in the same breath, the interconnectedness of living and dying, a ‘green’ young person facing the inevitability of it, which is of course what we all witness when green leaves turn to brown and orange in late autumn. It is no surprise that green is a colour that in many cultures has been associated with contrasting, opposing and conflicting emotions and meanings.

Among the positive associations with green are nature in general, fertility, rebirth, orchards and gardens, love, honour and peacefulness. Goethe considered it the best colour for rooms you want to feel calm and comfortable in, such as studies and libraries, and painted much of his Garden House in Weimar green. In Islamic culture it is a holy colour. But there are just as many negative associations with green: beasts, dragons, monsters, nasty fairies, the devil, envy, poison, illness, to name but a few. If green is the colour of nature, then nature can be threatening as well as life-giving, from which many associations and superstitions developed.

Middling green

Green is a complex colour and we have an ambivalent relationship with it. On the visible spectrum it occupies the middle ground, between yellow and blue. It is very close to many people’s favourite colour, blue, but by comparison it is deeply unpopular. Green is not easily pinned down visually, culturally, physically, or linguistically. It is rarely present in cave paintings, and it doesn’t really exist in the earliest colour concepts, which largely distinguished between light and dark colours, rather than specific shades.

The ancient Greeks had very few green colour terms, leading some scholars to suggest that they couldn’t distinguish between blue and green. There were more greens in Roman art and language, but not in clothing. Green’s middling position in the chromatic range may be one reason for its camouflage nature and humans’ reluctance to engage with such an oscillating colour, but another is the difficulty of creating green as pigments and dyestuff. As with blue (see ROSA #1) there is an irony in the fact that we are surrounded by green, at least here where we live. The world we look at is, unless you are staring at the sea or urban spaces, largely blue (the sky) and green (vegetation/chlorophyll). Yet, until the production of synthetic colours and dyes, green pigment was difficult to source.

Nevertheless, it gained symbolic momentum in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in positive and negative ways. The concept of the four human temperaments had been recorded since at least classical times, but was particularly prominent in the Middle Ages. Here, green is one of the four bodily fluids which characterise a person: red blood (sanguine, outgoing, passionate), yellow bile (choleric, short-tempered), black bile (melancholy, pessimistic), green phlegm (phlegmatic, relaxed, calm, careful, level-headed, even-tempered). The ancient pagan myth of the Green Man gained prominence in the Middle Ages, symbolising the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We may think of his face on medieval stonework, but surprisingly one is lurking amidst the Chinoiserie decorations in the Royal Pavilion, on a piece of painted glass on the upper floor.

Green pigments: shimmering, shapeshifting, toxic

Green is a secondary colour, a mix of yellow and blue, and many greens have been created by doing just that –combining blue and yellow pigments. Chlorophyll itself, so abundant in our world, doesn’t make a good pigment. So what greens were available to us through history?

There are earth greens, but they are nowhere near as abundant as browns, ochres or reds. Terre Vert is a beautiful natural, mineral-based green earth pigment. It has low covering power but is unaffected by light or chemicals. Medieval painters used green earth for underpainting shadows and light flesh tones. Next time you walk through a gallery of Old Masters look out for sickly looking saints, angels and Madonnas: the organic reds that were used over the underpaint may have faded, revealing the more stable green earths underneath.

There are other mineral green pigments, for example Malachite. This is a basic copper carbonate and moderately permanent as a pigment. It was used in Ancient Egypt and popular in the Renaissance. It is bright and shiny, but sensitive to heat and acids.

As for organic greens, few plants produce a good, stable and even green dye, which explains why, until the invention of chemical dyestuffs and aniline dyes in the 19th century, green garments were less common than other colours, such as red.

There is, however, Sap Green, which is extracted from unripe Buckthorn berries, and it is likely that the fabulous gown worn by the woman in Jan van Eyck’s painting The Arnolfini Marriage (1434) was dyed with Sap Green. Much has been said about the iconography and symbolism of this painting. The woman is holding up the skirt of her dress in a way that makes her look pregnant, but perhaps more important than this is the sheer volume and intense colour of the fabric. A voluminous and evenly dyed dress in a green colour would have been expensive, so what it mostly stands for is material wealth.

Verdigris or copper greens are transparent, shimmery bluish green pigments, much used from the 15th to the 17th century, usually to paint drapery, and very popular in the 19th century. They are easy to make, by putting copper in vinegar. Over time, through chemical reaction, copper turns a blue-ish green (as can be seen on the copper dome of the Royal Pavilion’s North Gate). This green powder can be scraped off and used as a pigment.

A range of copper-based and arsenic-based greens were invented in the late 18th and further developed in the 19th century. As the name suggests, these were highly toxic. One of the first of these was Scheele’s Green, invented in 1775 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Its chemical makeup was similar to the slightly later Paris Green, which was famously used as rat poison in the sewers of Paris. Also related is the 19th-century Emerald Green, found in many early paint boxes. All of them are copper-arsenates: beautiful, stable and brilliant, but there was a price to pay for this beauty.

Arsenic greens were used for pretty much everything: paints, fabrics, paper, wax candles, and even on some children’s toys. Napoleon was possibly killed by the green wallpaper in his house on St Helena. The damp conditions on the island released the arsenic. Dresses, too, were dyed with arsenic greens, causing much illness (and occasional fatalities) among fashion-conscious women in the 19th century. A contemporary caricature shows a woman wearing an emeraldgreen dress dancing with an allegorical figure of death.

The toxic effect of arsenic greens was well-known by the 19th century, but this did not stop the fashion for green. In painting we see marvellous gem-like greens especially in paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. Think of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s portraits of his model Jane Morris in deep green long-flowing dresses, or of Millais’ Ophelia drifting through the reeds. But next time you look at green-ground William Morris wallpaper, don’t whatever you do lick the walls. Many of these Pre-Raphaelite greens were copper-arsenate.

Viridian was an alternative to copper-arsenate, a chemical, non-toxic, stable, and powerful cold green that took the later 19th-century art world by storm. Based on Chromium oxide dihydrate, it was patented by Guignet of Paris in 1859. This is one of the greens in van Gogh’s paintings, composed of often violently contrasting and jarring colours. In The Night Café (1888) he combines a highly saturated viridian with strong reds. In a letter to his brother Theo he talks about his choice of colours: ‘I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green … Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue’.

Sussex Greens

I will never forget seeing the Sussex Downs for the first time. I came as a visitor in the summer of 1995 and remember fields and hills of velvety light greens gently slashed by sinuous chalk paths, pits and cliffs, contrasting with a clear blue sky. It all looked very painterly, and even the sheep seemed to be impressionistic daubs of colour on a canvas, rather than living creatures. Unsurprisingly, painters have revelled in the beauty of the Sussex landscape for centuries. You can see this at the current exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester, Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water (on until April 23). Here, some of the greatest examples of artists capturing tactile-looking Sussex greens and self-referencing chalky whites are on display, among them works by Eric Ravilious, William Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, Charles Knight, John Piper, Eric Slater, and Vanessa Bell.

For obvious reasons I couldn’t ask any of the above artists about their relationship with green, but I regularly talk about colour with graphic artist Neil Gower, and enjoy looking at the photos he takes while running in, on and through the Sussex Downs, which strike me as pictorial love letters to the county. Neil frequently draws maps and aerial views full of vegetation. Surprisingly, he said that green has been a “source of anxiety” for him since he was diagnosed with a degree of colour-blindness when he was twelve, and advised to rule out careers as pilot, electrician and artist. “I guess [by becoming an artist] I chose the route that posed least danger to myself and the general public,” he notes, and he is extra vigilant when mixing and using greens. He grew up in the Rhondda Valley in Wales, where the green hillsides were inked with black coal dust . Now surrounded by the chalk-inscribed South Downs, he thinks that his “urge to celebrate them in this way is sharpened by the contrast with the landscapes of my childhood.”

Neil uses green more than any other colour. His images of gardens and parks fall somewhere between maps and pictorial depictions, so he is able to “schematise” the colours to a degree, using certain shades for trees and others for lawns and meadows. He begins each painting with very loose, wet watercolour areas then works the detail in with a very fine pencil or sepia ink. And which greens does he use when he paints? “Winsor & Newton Permanent Sap Green is probably the hue that I have to replace most frequently.” When working in gouache, he tends to lean more towards bluer greens, purely because they please him. He has a theory that Pale Cobalt Turquoise is the pigment equivalent of female backing vocals in music – lifting anything. Neil may have given me an idea for a future colour piece for ROSA, on the analogy of colour and sound.

Alexandra Loske is a curator at Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums and the author of Colour: a Visual History (Tate 2019).