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My Palette: Old Holland Viridian Green Deep

Students seem to have more difficulty mixing appropriate green than any other hue.  There is no secret to it—all that is required as an understanding of your palette and the basics of color harmony.


Artists like Scott Christensen paint with three primaries plus white and black.  That assures harmony since the entire painting is composed of only three hues.  But even here green is not just made of a random amount of yellow and blue.  The mix is carefully balanced.  And it is often nuanced with red, black and/or white.


Although I work with a more extensive palette than does Christensen,  Old Holland viridian green deep is the only tubed green I use.  It is permanent, transparent, cool and rich, with middling tint strength.  A very easy hue to control, viridian need never dominate your painting.


I never use green straight out of the tube.  Viridian gets mixed with other hues in use in the painting.  I do not subscribe to the philosophy of never mixing more than three colors because most tubed paint is not pure hue—it is already a mix of other colors.  I mix whatever it takes to get the hue that works best in the painting.  As a tonalist, I worry less about muddy colors and more about harmony.


To make deep shadows in trees I use burnt umber with a little viridian.  Sometimes I add a bit of alizarin crimson or ultramarine blue—it depends on whether the hue needs to be warmed or cooled (note that both of those colors are also transparent or semi-transparent.)  Old Holland burnt umber is fairly warm, while Grumbacher P/T burnt umber is cooler.


Keeping the deep shadows transparent and thinned with oil and a little turp makes them expressive.  Shapes can appear and disappear, merely depending on the thickness of the application.  Also, transparent shadows recede in relation to opaque passages.


Mid-tone greens are by nature less transparent by the inclusion of opaque yellows and even white.  For deeper mid-tones I add yellow ochre to the viridian and umber mix.  This opacity allows the mid-tones to advance, creating the illusion of volume.


Lighter mid-tones are generally yellow ochre, viridian and one of the reds, depending on whether I want the green warmer or cooler.


Highlights on trees and in grass often get a bit of white or the sky hue added to the above mix.  I do not see highlights in the landscape as bright or saturated color.  Instead, I see highlights somewhat neutral because they are reflecting sky tones.  However, I do not use this highlight mix next to the sky because the light value and whitish hue deadens the contrast.  Keeping the lightest highlights near the center of interest, or use the highlights as a directional device, moves the viewer through the painting.  Toward the outer edges of trees, especially against sky, I use darker mid-tones that are brown-orange, or even lavender on the side away from the sun source.


Some trees are a deep olive hue.  Others, depending on the season, may be rich green or yellow green.  Veridian mixed with other hues gets all the variation I need while keeping the painting harmonious.


Because the colors I mix are very muted, it is not terribly unusual for a dull green to contain a little of everything on the palette.  That said, the result has to be exactly the right hue.


With care, viridian can also go in the sky, clouds and mountains.


Because of its medium tinting strength, viridian plays well as the complimentary color that delicately tones down rosy reds.  When used to tone down cadmium reds, however, the addition of viridian will trend the mix toward brownish tones—perfect for trees and grasses, but not for skies.


If I need any green that can’t be made from viridian, a yellow mixed with ivory black or one of the blues will do very well.  However, cadmium yellows are opaque, and I find mixes from them to be acidic looking in my paintings.


Sometimes the industry suffers an embargo on certain pigments, or turns to a cheaper alternative.  Manufacturers never tell you about the change.  You might think you forgot everything you ever knew about mixing paint, before you realize the problem is the paint and not you.


If you have the patience to do color charts, I highly recommend them.  You will grow familiar with the capabilities of your palette.  If you detest color charts, just make a puddle of paint and draw it out in a few different directions, adding small amounts of different colors as you go.  It helps if you make notes of what you added.  Even without notes the puddles will help you discover the capabilities of your paint.


Lastly, it is not enough to mix the perfect color.  Adjacent hues and values make or break the effect.  So do study up on color theory.


Some artist color manufacturers have very useful websites.  Gamblin has an extensive website, offering you information on transparency, tinting strength and chemical safety of their oil paints.  Below is a link to their greens.  Winsor Newton’s site, while not as comprehensive, is also useful.  Check all the major manufacturers for information about the paint they sell.

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Light and Atmosphere in Your Painting

Whether you are working with a still life set-up or plein air painting, think of light and atmosphere as closely related entities.  Their tone will influence your entire painting.  One way of unifying atmosphere is by toning your canvas—staining it, for example, with alizarin crimson for a rosy light, or yellow ochre for golden light, and leaving bits of that stain showing through the painting.


Another method is to use the atmospheric hue throughout the painting, with more in the background and less in the foreground.


A key element in creating atmosphere and unity is moving color around.  Bent grasses reflect sky colors.  Foreground shadows echo the color of distant mountains.  There will be a slight change in hue from bottom to top as you paint a 50’ tree.


This is “aerial perspective.”  However, I find that term cold and unimaginative.  I think in terms of light and atmosphere as I paint.


How you interpret what you see is a personal thing.  Southern California, being a warm climate, is often painted in warm light.  However, I always saw it as cool and silvery.  I felt vindicated when reading that some early southern California Impressionists also noted that silvery light.  It may be caused by fine dust and sea-salt particles adrift on dry breezes.  It does not exist in Oregon, which has an entirely different character to light.  Know your light.


Landscape or still life, the color of light and atmosphere will impact your handling of aerial perspective.  When you visit an art museum, take a small notebook with you.  In it, make notes of how other artists use color to create atmosphere.

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The Problem with Plein Air Painting is...

Last summer a friend and I scheduled a painting day in Portland’s park blocks.  We chose a great location with red bistro umbrellas in the middle-ground and plenty of diners and strollers.  The park was in deep shade, light was somewhat greenish as it filtered through thick leaves, and the red umbrellas were mostly in shade.  Heavily tinted bistro windows appeared stark black.  I painted what I saw and was predictably disappointed in the dark result.  This is the problem I have with plein air painting:  Local color does not always match mood, and mood is the driving force in my paintings.


When Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery invited a baker’s dozen of its artists to a paint-out in the same park, I approached it in a wholly different way.  I preselected a site, photographed it, did multiple pencil sketches, and studied the values.  The monument of Teddy Roosevelt, which I wanted to feature, was lost in background foliage of the same value.  Altering the surrounding foliage to a cheerful light value created the center of interest I wanted.  The artist in my painting was actually facing me, but turning her toward the monument created a link between her and the monument.  Had I painted her the way I saw her, she would have been the subject of the painting, and Roosevelt, superfluous competition.


I wanted to portray a cheerful, busy day in the park.  And while that was exactly what the day provided, it was not what local color and real values provided.


Such high-key oil sketches as these are abnormal for me:  I am a landscape painter enamored with shadows and low-contrast.  Entirely out of my comfort zone with urban/people painting, I find it necessary to dig deep into the principals that govern my meditative landscape paintings:  Composition, color, value—and most of all, mood—pushing one reality to create another.

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Oil Painting Demo--my approach to painting

Spring Storm

Click on the DEMO tab to learn how I paint in this step-by-step illustrated demo of Spring Storm.  In this start-to-finish demo I will tell you what materials I am using and what I am thinking about at each stage of the painting.  Brushwork, color theory, botany--it's all covered.

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Alla Prima Workshop

Yvonne at Fire and Earth Studio, photo by Thomas Kitts

Let me start by saying there was no fluff in Thomas Jefferson Kitts workshop.  Painting alla prima, we completed five studies in three days.   Kitts challenged us to detect the subtleties of value, hue and chroma.  He introduced several of the students to “notan”, a concept of value-massing, and gave us a lesson on the Gamblin color system, a variation on Munsell's system.

We painted still lifes from sumptuous arrangements of fresh fruit and flowers.  The play of light and shadow through the arrangements gave us opportunities to apply what we learned about value-massing.  On the last day, Kitts did a demo painting, then we painted from a model, separating values and color temperature on pale skin.

Kitts, a Portland Oregon artist, ocassionally consults with Gamblin Artist's Oil Colors .  Each student got a goodie bag of Gambin products, including an informative DVD on color mixing theory.  Following the workshop, I spent a morning reading Gamblin's website--well worth the time.  After I photograph my workshop paintings, I'll give more detail about what we covered in class.

One tip:  I usually wear smooth-soled SAS shoes.  But by the end of the first day, my feet were tired and freezing (this is February in Portland on a concrete floor.)  For the rest of the workshop I wore wool sox and hiking shoes with heavy tread.  The big spaces in the tread seem to keep shoes from absorbing cold from the floor, while the wool sox provided cushion, warmth, and kept my feet drier.  Warm feet at winter workshops are happy feet.

If you are looking for a painting workshop in Portland, Oregon, I heartily recommend Kitts.  Plan on working hard, learning a lot, and taking breaks and lunch on the fly--and finishing invigorated. See his paintings and find his workshops at

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Painting with Primaries I

In a prior post (DVD Review: “Three Landscape Studies” by Scott Christensen, August 22, 2010) I wrote that I would report on my experiments with a palette limited to three colors plus white and black.  Frankly, there have been a few duds and some paint-overs with my more extensive palette.  I’m not giving up on it, however, because I really like the concept.  The following 8x10" oil sketch, using primaries, worked.


These are the colors I am using for my primaries:

  • Grumbacher RedOak Glen en plein air
  • Old Holland Cadmium Yellow Lemon
  • Old Holland Ultramarine Blue
  • Old Holland Titanium White
  • Grumbacher PT Ivory Black

While these colors differ somewhat from Christensen’s palette I am following his basic theory and practice.  Only one brush was used, a filbert #4.

This late summer setting is in the little mountain community of Oak Glen, in southern California.  While Sharon Rachal painted the beautiful old stone school, I tackled a thoroughly green scene with a charming old shed.  As we were cleaning up, Sharon, with a twinkle in her eye, noted I had painted the restrooms.

I selected this view because of the challenge it presented in mixing warm and cool greens in a green-dominant painting.  Could I make the greens advance and recede properly?  Could I make the shed advance even though it was a cooler green than the surrounding foliage?  Could such a green scene be interesting?  When faced with a scene to paint, not only do you need to edit out the superfluous distractions, but you need to identify a set of questions or conditions that keep you focused.

I mixed big piles of basic dark and warm light, using these to tint and tone other mixes.  There is quite a bit of Grumbacher Red in the sun-lit portion of the green shed.  The angle of shadow on the shed is critical to the painting and is repeated in the foreground grass as well as by a tree branch.  Note a slight break in the shadow on the shed, which slows the speed of the line and reduces its severity.

This 1.5 hour plein air sketch afforded me greater understanding of primary colors and how to mix them.  It also proved a plein air painter can travel lightly by using primaries.

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