By NOAH BECKER September, 2019
In the visible spectrum the color green is the sharpest and dominant wavelength of all colors. It’s evoked by light and creates a harsh pill to swallow due to its abundance in the eye. Green is the hardest color to paint with, however, in some future time it will be the easiest to paint with due to the lack of green and the dominance of greys, (A good portion of green on the planet is burning today, pray for the Amazon). We see more shades of green than any color because of our default library given to us by our ancestors who tested the fields for poisonous or safe greens. Due to the color green being so dominant in our minds we can’t seem to allow a green painting in our homes - it simply does not match the outside. To create a successful painting using primarily the color green, it’s a difficult task.
- Mel Luna
A pallid and thin young man,
A haggard and lank young man,
A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery,
Foot-in-the-grave young man!
- W.S. Gilbert
It's not easy being green.
- Kermit the Frog
Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.
- Virginia Woolf, Orlando
I’ve walked through European museums full of mediocre green and brown Dutch Master paintings. The pace of my steps increased until I almost jogged past green and brown paintings. Only Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and Francis Bacon made me stop and look. Why is this the case? I have a few theories...
Money is green, unskilled workers are “green” so to speak, the references to green in our society go on and on. Green is the most difficult color to use in painting, yes. It depends on what kind of painting is being talked about but I’m referring to naturalistic art. Usually it’s a good idea to reduce green paint so it’s not too bright - if it is too bright then it becomes a real bother to the traditional landscape painter. You can add red or brown to green if you wish to reduce it - I've never been much for traditional painting though.
Green as seen in Van Gogh can be very primary and bright, yet has the characteristics of a naturalistic green - the feeling. This to me seems due to Van Gogh’s intense sculptural and formal energy. You can ask yourself why Van Gogh is so much more interesting than other Dutch paintings of a similar era? What I just mentioned may be part of this mystery. It could be a matter of personal taste and one's natural love for one specific color? Some are disgusted by green, others surround themselves with as much green as possible - Elizabeth Sweetheart comes to mind. If green is not the issue, then it’s how painters paint paintings - but I get ahead of myself here.
Green being the color of envy might distract the viewer with other considerations - is it possible to make art with bright green in a landscape? Of course, it’s possible to use green as you wish - but use at your own peril. Green is the hardest color to use and it’s also the weirdest color. I've always thought green was weird, my favorite color is red but I've met many who say green is theirs.
Freedom with green aside, let’s think about how many bad greenish landscape paintings have been made throughout history. Once we consider how pedestrian most landscape art is, how can we focus our efforts towards making a painting that employs green but is not another mediocre piece of art? This gets very difficult if you add contemporary art thinking to the mix - especially for the mediocre artist.
Unless I’m looking at Van Gogh, most green paintings make me nauseous. It’s not the color green but it’s the idea of nature as nature that makes me kind of sick - the terror of the sublime perhaps? The common artist’s fetish with realism, the conservative nature of the realist art enthusiast - yuck. When I say this, I’m thinking about the higher aspects of perception that hopefully any high level artist develops. All artists are not created equal only some are good and an even smaller number are great - it’s not a yoga class.
So then we think about all the artists who ever tried to use green and think about their failings and triumphs. Not very many artists use green successfully is the sad truth. I’ve been in a green phase because my recent paintings have landscapes in them. It’s not so much about the landscape as is it about a living container to hold the elements of what I’m painting.
I could go for a drink at Tavern on the Green and talk about Morris Louis. Or talk about Ellsworth Kelly and his window motif, or Ellsworth Kelly's leaf drawings - but that's another article.
As we know, Kelly Green is a color but also the surname of a person - interesting right? WM
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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