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One way to be the Belle of the Ball in the 19th Century was to wear a dress made from the exciting new green pigment developed in Schweinfurt, Germany in 1814. This was a brilliant hue that made sure all eyes were on you, and was the first single pigment green to be made. Unfortunately for those coming into close contact with this colour, it killed. This revolutionary green was made from arsenic.

We are much better catered for today – we have around eight single pigment greens to make colour with, none of which will kill! These greens are made from phthalocyanine (copper), chromium, and cobalt.

  1. The gemstone Serpentine is used by Daniel Smith to create a variegated and granulating green for their PrimaTek watercolour range (left). The pure pigment PG36 Phthalocyanine Green Light (also called Yellowish) was developed in the 1930s and provides an important base for brilliant, warm mixtures (right).

Green occupies an important place in our spectrum. One of the three receptor cones in our eyes is dedicated to green, as it’s one of the three primaries of additive mixing (mixing with light, e.g. a movie projector or digital screen). Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) placed green in the middle of his colour chart of the emotions, being a mix of the two extremes: yellow and blue. Rococo painter Francois Boucher (1703-70) proclaimed landscape to be “too green and badly lit”, perhaps because he lacked the fabulous green pigments we have today!

  1. Mixed greens, from left to right: Golden Titan Green Pale, Golden Green Gold, Mussini Translucent Golden Green, Williamsburg Cadmium Green, Old Holland Permanent Green Light.

Green takes up a large part of a colour range, and with only eight or so single pigments available, most of these greens are mixtures. Colours named after people such as Hooker’s Green, Jenkin’s Green; or after plants: Olive Green, Sap Green, Leaf Green, are mixed colours. Phthalo pigments are commonly used as a base, as they are relatively cheap, have a high tinting strength (not much is needed to affect the mixture), and their translucent character imparts an attractive luminosity. Four of the five greens shown above contain Phthalo pigment.

Phthalocyanine green comes in two hues: PG7 is a blue shade and PG36 is a yellow shade. Phthalo Green PG7 is the most common, inexpensive enough to be included in student ranges. It’s a bright, cool, emerald hue that mixes into turquoise with blue (especially Phthalo Blue) and white, bright “May” greens with cool yellows and golden greens with warm ones, and turns cool reds into the deepest black. Phthalo Green PG36 is usually found in professional artist ranges, as it’s more expensive to produce. It has a warm, golden undertone suited to mixing olive and yellowish-greens.


3. Left to right: Old Holland Scheveningen Green and Mussini Helio Green Light are both made from Phthalo Green PG36 but called by proprietary names. While PG36 is generally found in the highest quality colours such as Golden Phthalo Green (Yellow Shade), it’s also available in the Akademie grade acrylic from Schmincke as Phthalo Green Light – not to be confused with Golden Light Phthalo Green, which is a pale tint of PG36 with white… and though Phthalo colours are naturally translucent, Schmincke turn Phthalo Green Yellow Shade opaque in their Aerocolor Total Cover range by using a special binder

  1. Left to right: Golden Chromium Oxide Green and Chromium Oxide Green Dark (note the pigment denomination PG17 on the tube), Norma Professional Chromium Oxide Green, and Norma Professional Chromium Oxide Green Brilliant.

Chromium provides both opaque and translucent greens that are inexpensive and useful, especially in landscape and portrait work. It’s important to note that PG17 Chromium Oxide Green and PG18 Chromium Oxide Green Brilliant have completely different characteristics: PG17 makes an opaque green with a warm tone, excellent in landscape painting, while PG18 is a translucent blue-green. The PG18 “Brilliant” hue has a weak tinting strength (it has a weak effect on a mixture), making it ideal for lowering the chroma (greying) of reds in portrait painting. Using a high tinting Phthalo green in this case would turn the model into a zombie very quickly!

  1. Left to right: Schmincke Horadam Cobalt Green Turquoise, Golden Cobalt Teal, Schmincke Primacryl Oriental Green, and Williamsburg Cobalt Green.

Cobalt is a crystal discovered in the 1780s and named after German dragons called Kobalts. Cobalt ranges in hue from green to blue, and provides a low chroma, mostly opaque tone that softens beautifully when reduced with white. Cobalt is expensive as there are only a few mines around the world, but the subtleties that can be achieved can’t be imitated by modern pigments.

While technically a blue pigment, PB36 Cobalt Green Turquoise is most often lumped in with the greens, offering a deeper, more moody alternative to the brighter, more boisterous PG50 Cobalt Teal/Turquoise. For the black greens of New Zealand bush, Cobalt Green PG26 is excellent, especially with a touch of a deep, cool red to blacken it further. A rarer cobalt is PG19, available in the Schmincke Mussini and Primacryl ranges as Oriental Green, an opaque billiard table green.

Although colour theory teaches us we can mix green from yellow and blue, we cannot achieve the clarity and strength of Phthalo greens, nor the subtle softness of cobalt and chromium greens through mixing. Green is an important part of any palette, and these days won’t make you “green around the gills”. If you’re interested in the green that killed, Schmincke make a non-toxic version of the original Schweinfurt Green in their Norma Professional Oilcolour range. It just might take your painting to greener pastures.

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