Mixing Harmonious Greens in My Plein Air Painting

All you landscape artists who live in the dry, deserty parts of the world, or you plein air painters in the wet, watery parts of the world, bear with me, but those of us who live in the lushly vegetated parts of the world face a big challenge: green! It’s everywhere, especially at this time of year! On hillsides, on trees, reflected in the water and even the sky—it’s all green! Sometimes it feels like it’s the only color in any subject you choose if you are painting outside! Do you know what I’m talking about?

Those of us who dare to paint these abundant greens have to learn to push our color mixes into a whole range of emeralds, aquas, olive drabs, limes, and celeries. At first read, it may sound like I’m advocating using a huge palette of umpteen colors, but no! Quite the opposite. In my experience, the secret to mixing a broad range of greens while still maintaining a gorgeous sense of color harmony is this: the limited palette.

When you work with a limited palette, you end up mixing the same handful of colors into virtually every stroke and passage of every painting—in different combinations, obviously, but you know what I mean. The result is that the colors automatically harmonize with each other. What more could you ask for? And when it comes to mixing greens, you can still mix a healthy variety. Let me explain what I mean.

All the pigments in my plein air painting palette are neutral and always mix a range of natural-looking greens.
The pigments in a limited palette mix a range of
natural-looking greens.

For many years, my entire palette consisted of: Ultramarine Blue (neutral), Cadmium Yellow (warm), Lemon Yellow (cool), Cadmium Red (warm), Alizarin Crimson (cool), and White. Because Ultramarine is a fairly neutral blue, you can easily “bend” it toward warms as I did in the top row by mixing it with Cad Yellow and Cad Red, or you can push it toward cools as I did in the bottom row by mixing it with Lemon and Alizarin. And this is just the starting point. Because all of these pigments are natural, as in made from earth materials, they always mix into natural-looking greens perfect for plein air painting.

Adding Phthalo blue offers me a broader range of bright greens when I'm painting outside.
Adding Phthalo blue offers
me a broader range of
bright greens.

More recently, however, I started including Phthalo Blue in my palette. Phthalo is a synthetic color, so it is much more intense and holds its staying power when you mix it, as I did here with Cad Yellow and Lemon. If a broader range of bright greens is what you want when you are en plein air, Phthalo is a great way to get it by adding just one color to your palette.

However, Phthalo is so powerful that it can quickly look garrish, refusing to “play nice” with the other colors on this palette. To balance out its intensity, I’ve added two very drab colors as mixers to my palette: Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna. When you start combining all of these, you end up with a fantastic array of luscious greens that are a bit brighter than the Ultramarine mixes but still look natural enough for a traditional landscape painting.

Adding yellow ochre and burnt sienna to
the palette as mixers toned down the
Phthalo but still gave me luscious greens.

So the next time you’re heading to do some outdoor painting, leave those tubes of green (and orange and purple and black) behind and give the limited palette a try. Not only will you get both infinite variety and beautiful harmony in your greens, you’ll have less to carry!

What are your great tips for mixing greens? I’m always open to more ideas.



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Jennifer King

About Jennifer King

Immersed in the art world is just where Jennifer King wants to be. Thanks to her long career in the art-instruction business--she was the editor of several leading artists' magazines--she has had incredible opportunities to meet and interview many of the finest living artists of our times, including Will Barnett, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Sam Adoquei, Richard Schmid, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Ken Auster, Carla O’Connor, C.W. Mundy, Dan Gerhartz, Birgit O’Connor, Daniel Greene, and countless other generous artists who’ve shared their knowledge and insights. She is also honored to have edited several art-instruction books with such noted artists as Tom Lynch, Dan McCaw, Ramon Kelley, Wende Caporale, Carlton Plummer, and more.

Inspired by their passion for art, Jennifer returned to her own love of painting about 15 years ago, studying with figurative painter Tina Tammaro. Through this experience, she discovered her love of landscape painting, which for her, acts as a visual metaphor for human emotion. Constable, Corot, Pissarro, Inness, and Diebenkorn are among her artistic heroes. Other creative pursuits include photography and jewelry-making, and she’s also continuously studying art history and theory.

Jennifer paints primarily outdoors, but also in her home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. She also continues to serve as a lecturer and competition juror for various art organizations across the country, and she is a member of the Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati. Jennifer is currently represented by the Greenwich House Gallery in O’Bryonville, a suburb of Cincinnati. As a confirmed landscape artist, her future goal is to use her experience in the art world to raise awareness for the need to protect our environment.

7 thoughts on “Mixing Harmonious Greens in My Plein Air Painting

  1. Yes Yes Yes! Green OMG! green. My plein air partner and I are trying to figure out how to deal with all the green. It’s difficult because the lighting where I live is cool and diffused. The area is also pretty flat. Many other places/states have the advantage of rolling hills or better light. One tree in the foreground and another in the background may actually be the same overall value but slightly different temperatures. Most people do not ever perceive this difference. Where I live there is a dual challenge – green and diffused lighting.

    Warm greens, cool greens, add red, add sienna, etc, etc, I’ve tried it all. I’m beginning to see that it is a matter of pushing the values in the painting and finding a strong focal point. Yep green is a challenge and so is the light. I’ll pull out the Pthalo and give it a try, but I think I’ll need to keep trying several solutions.

    I’ve been trying to have a few pre-mixed mixer color on my palette which help me to mix green colors more quickly by adding a little as needed – a grayish color, a greenish yellow, a light sage, a plum, a brownish, a bluish green, etc. I’ve also been experimenting with a base green color in the center of the palette and then mix it lighter more yellow/warmer going one direction and cooler the other direction.

  2. Hey everyone, sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I’ve been gone on vacation – cruise to the Baltic where everything is blue!!! LOL. Anyway, thanks to Mark for mentioning that important point. I completely agree that nearly every green mix needs at least a little red to make it look more natural. And to kwerges, I personally think that Cerulean doesn’t have much staying power when mixed with a lot of yellow or white to make a light green, and since my goal is to carry fewer paint tubes, I don’t think it earns a place in my paint box. But it is a lovely color and will work beautifully for many situations. Try it! Every artist needs to find what works best for his or her own needs – this is just a suggested place to start.