Green Light

The Color Green

The color green is evoked by light which has a dominant wavelength of 495 to 570 nanometers, appearing in the visual spectrum between the colors blue and yellow. It is created in painting by the combinations of yellow and blue, or yellow and cyan. The shades of the color green range from yellow-greens, such as lime and avocado, to those with a blue tinge, such as emerald and turquoise. 

The English word ‘green’ comes from the Old English and Middle English word ‘grene, which like the German word ‘grün’, has the same root as the words ‘grass’ and ‘grow’, The first recorded use of the word as a term for a color in Old English is dated to about 700 AD. Although many languages, such as Germanic, Romance, Slavic and Greek, have old terms for “green’ which derived from words for vegetation, there is no identifiable single Proto-Indo-European source word for the word “green”. Linguistics studies indicate that all these terms were developed independently over time. 

In ancient Egypt, the color green was the symbol of rebirth and regeneration. Egyptian artists used the mineral malachite, finely ground, for painting on walls and on papyrus; this mineral was mined in the west Sinai and the eastern desert. Green had very positive associations for the Egyptians. A growing papyrus sprout represented the hieroglyph for the word green, linking the color to vegetation, vigor and growth. Osiris, the Egyptian God of the Underworld, was usually portrayed as having a green face, as seen in the tomb of Nefertari who reigned from 1295 to 1253 BC. Malachite amulets were worn for protection from evil and given to the dead to promote vigor in the deceased. 

The green pigment verdigris is made by placing a copper, brass or bronze plate, slightly warmed, into a vat of fermenting wine for several weeks. The green powder that forms on the metal is scraped off and dried. This pigment was used by the Romans in murals, and in Celtic manuscripts. It produced a blue-green color; but it was unstable and toxic. Verdigris was used in Persian and European paintings util the late 19th century, when it was replaced by the pigment chrome green. Vincent van Gogh used viridian, a more stable green patented in 1859, in a mixture of Prussian blue to create the green tinted sky in his 1888 painting “Cafe Terrace at Night”.

The use of the color green in painting plays an important role in the creation of naturalistic flesh tones, as seen in Duccio di Buoninsegna’s altarpiece “Maestà” at the Museo deli’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo in Siena, Italy. Its use in underpainting and glazing is seen in Jan van Eyck’s oil paintings and Paolo Uccello’s murals. Helen Frankenthaler used the color green almost exclusively in her 1992 “Overture”, one of her freest works, swirling green paint into vortices and and then dissolving it into rich patterns.  

Another example of the use of green was the installation work “Green Light Corridor” by Indiana-born artist Bruce Nauman which enforced the contrast between the perceptual and physical experience of space. He constructed two high walls spaced twelve inches apart, lit by green fluorescent bulbs hanging above the created corridor. Spectators walked through the tight space, the eyes adjusting to the green light. Upon exiting, their eyes adjusted again, causing them to see an optical illusion of the color pink, the opposite end of the color spectrum. 

Featured image” Helen Frankenthaler, “Overture”, 1992, Acrylic on Canvas, 70 x 94 Inches, The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York

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