How to mix greens using watercolors

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by my students has to do with how to mix greens. No other color generates as much confusion regarding how it is mixed. Green is produced when you mix blue with yellow. However, as most blue and yellow pigments are not pure colors i.e. they contain a little of a second or third primary (red, yellow or blue) color, there is a tremendous range of pigments which can be used, in combination, to produce a green. I think this may be one of the reason artists can have trouble mixing it.

I prefer to mix my green colors, rather than just using them straight from the tube. In this way, I can create more interesting variations in the green passages of my paintings — the mixed colors partially separate on the paper. Also, I find the premixed greens can be too bright for the landscape paintings I like to produce.

Watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright, titled North Richmond Farmland.

North Richmond farmland 14.5″ x 10.5″ (37cm x 27cm) – Watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

The main colors I use to create my greens are Cobalt Turquoise, Winsor Lemon, Raw Umber and French Ultramarine. However, I also use Cadmium Yellow Light and Cadmium Orange, as well as Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue from time to time.

All of these colors are from Winsor and Newton, and my comments specifically refer to that brand. Different brands may have the same name for a color but they can be quite different. For instance, I had a student who was having troubling producing a dark dull green, for which I used French Ultramarine and Raw Umber. My student, however, kept producing a warm brown color. When I had a closer look at what was happening, I noticed she was using a different brand of Raw Umber which was reddish, while the Winsor and Newton Raw Umber is a slightly yellowish brown. The red in her paint was making the resultant mix very brown rather than a dull green.

How to mix greens — my process

I usually start by adding a little Cobalt Turquoise with a lot more Winsor Lemon (or any other cool, green leaning, yellow). This produces a vibrant green.

I then usually add a little Raw Umber to dull it down, as I find really bright greens quite rare. By adding even more Raw Umber, I can produce a dull green-brown color.

To make a darker green I add French Ultramarine to the mixture of the other three.

Obviously the above is not intended to be an exact formula. Depending on my painting, and the section I am working on, I will use different ratios of these four colors. By adjusting the amount of water in my mixes I can also create a very wide range of tones for any one mixed green.

It is more important that you understand my process, and why I use it, rather than to try and remember a rote formula. In this way you will be able to create your own greens, either using my basic colors or others you are more familiar with.

Here are some of the properties of my colors and why I use them:

Chart showing how to mix greens with my palette of colors.

Chart showing how to mix greens with my palette of colors.

Cobalt Turquoise

This a blue/green color and I use it as my base starting point when I want to mix greens. Usually I only use a very small amount, relative to the other colors of the mixture, as it can overpower the mix and produce a very cool green, leaning towards aqua. So use this sparingly.

Winsor Lemon

Winsor Lemon is a cool yellow, meaning it leans slightly towards green. When it mixes with Cobalt Blue, it can produce a vibrant green, usually too bright. For this reason, I almost always add some Raw Umber to the mix to dull the vibrancy.

Raw Umber

This is one of the earth colors, it is a slightly yellowish brown. When mixed with French Ultramarine it produces a dull green color. I mainly use it to dull a bright green or to mix a strong dark green. I also use it in dry grass fields to warm up the foreground.

French Ultramarine

This is a warm blue, because it has a tiny bit of red in it. I use it to create darker and cooler greens which are also duller. The red in the blue slightly greys off any green mixture, as red is the complementary color of green. When I am painting a tree, I use some of this to mix the green I use in the darker shadow passages of the foliage.

Cadmium Yellow Pale

A warm yellow, as it has a little red in it. It mixes with Cobalt Turquoise to produce a nice green. When mixed with French Ultramarine, the result is a slightly dull green suitable for many types of foliage.

Cadmium Orange

I don’t often use this color for mixing my greens but I do from time to time. If I have plenty of orange in the sky section of my painting, I will most likely use this pigment in mixing my greens.

Using pre-mixed greens

If you do want to use a pre-mixed green, then make sure you also add some other colors to it to create a broader range. Using tube colors can give you a purer, stronger green, but they can look unreal if you don’t modify them with other colors.

Here is a chart of some of the greens I found in my watercolor paints collection, mixed with various other colors:

Chart showing ready mixed greens showing how to add interest to them with other colors

Modifying tube greens to add interest

Paint consistency

In addition to the various green colors, by adding more or less water you can create lighter or stronger tones of your greens.

If you just paint with the same amount of water in all your mixes, you will have quite a flat looking painting, as your tonal range would be quite limited.

Red, the complementary color of green

While the topic of this article is how to mix greens, I would be remiss in not mentioning red, which is the complement of green. Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Why does one have to know about red, when mixing greens?

Well, if you produce a green which you think is too bright, then by adding a little red you can dull it down. Raw Umber does this a little because it is an earth color (browns are produced by adding some of all three primaries — red, yellow, blue). However, if you want to really dull a green adding some red will do this. Permanent Alizarin Crimson mixed with Winsor Green (Blue Shade) will produce a very dark color, almost black.

Your green colors

Whatever colors you have in your palette, that you use to make greens, I suggest you take some time to create a chart of all the different greens you can produce — you may be surprised at the variety of greens at your disposal!

13 thoughts on “How to mix greens using watercolors

  1. Robyn

    Thank you Joe, as a beginner I very much appreciate your article about mixing greens. It’s very helpful to me.

  2. Denise Kozlowski

    Thank you Joe! Every little bit helps! I am a beginner as well and love water colors and this information is helping me so much. Thank you again!
    Denise

  3. Jeff Browne

    Thanks Joe. I am a relative beginner and find your information very useful. Your paintings are inspirational! Jeff from Lake Macquarie.

  4. Valerie Schliff

    I am a raw beginner (aged 75) and have been looking for Australian tutorials. Living in a remote doesn’t help so I was delighted to discover this site on the internet. Thanks Joe, will be looking forward to more of your articles.

  5. donna madonna

    Thank you for posting all these tutorials!
    I love your style. I have taken a few classes in water color and none came close to what you teach.
    Please put me on your mailing list.
    Donna

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