Happy St. Patrick’s Day! In honor of The Emerald Isle, today we give the green light to all things viridescent in art (plus a few snakes in memory of the story of St. Paddy). No discussion of green could even begin without mentioning our banner artist, the queen of green herself, Iris Compiet, creator of “Fairies of the Faultlines.”
Iris says, “I love green and I love this hag so much. One of my all time favorites. She’s straight out of the Faultlines and definitely related to a Jenny Greenteeth. I must visit her again, see if she will share more of her stories with me.” Starting from this enthusiastic perspective, let’s dive into some of the complex history of this most ubiquitous of colors.
Artists and Green: It’s Complicated
As Kassia St. Clair writes in The Secret Lives of Color, “In Latin the word for green is viridis, which is related to a large group of words that suggest growth and even life itself: virere, to be green or vigorous; vis, strength; vir, man; and so on. Many cultures associate the color positively with gardens and spring.
The expression “to be green,” meaning inexperienced, was already being used by the Middle Ages. Minne, a Germanic goddess, who, like Cupid, was fond of shooting people with mischievous arrows of love, habitually wore a green dress, as did fertile young women-this is one interpretation, for example of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (c.1435).
Ms. St. Clair continues: “Artists had to deal with inferior green pigments. The Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten wrote in the 1670’s: “I wish that we had a green pigment as good as a red or yellow. Green earth is too weak, Spanish green too crude, and ashes (verditer) not sufficiently durable.”
Through time, artists often had to blend their own pigments in an attempt to come to the perfect green. Even this had its challenges. According to The Secret Lives of Color: “Verdigris was prone to reacting with other pigments and even blackening on its own, and terre verte had poor tinting strength and luminosity.”
“Paolo Veronese, who worked in Venice for most of his career during the sixteenth century and was, like Titian before him, an extremely skilled and resourceful colorist, was famous for being able to coax bright viridescent colors out of recalcitrant pigments. His trick was to apply a precise mixture of three different pigments in two layers and to protect green areas with layers of varnish to stop them reacting. Even he, though, had the occasional green mishap, and as late as the nineteenth century artists were struggling to produce a reliable green.”
Short of unintentionally creating a pea green sky due to a yellow ochre under-painting bleeding through the cobalt above, artists from the latter part of the nineteenth century through today face few such challenges.
Green pigments abound, from the vivid punch of Phthalo to the muted softness of Moss. When we think of green in paintings, landscapes may first come to the forefront, but artists and this versatile color stir our imaginations to countless experiences. From glowing preternatural fire to cool watery glades, green has the capacity to create a mood and awaken the senses like few others.
And on the topic of some contemporary artists rocking the green theme…
Green is, of course, a natural with bronze sculpture. The copper in bronze wants to oxidize so yup, it wants to be green (think Statue of Liberty). Patinas accelerate and enhance this process. As seen here in Colin Poole’s bronze sculptures, the color can vary from a vibrant aqua green to a more muted and subtle sage green. He uses the color as an integral part of the story.
Snakes on the Brain
Sculpture got a little bit of a short shrift in the green section. The story of St. Patrick goes that he is honored for driving the snakes out of Ireland despite the fact that there were no snakes around for him to banish. As a final nod to St. Patrick, here are a few sculptures featuring snakes.
Speaking of charms, the four leaves of the shamrock are said to stand for faith, hope, love and luck. May this St. Patrick’s Day bring bits of all of these into your creative life.