Earlier this year I moved from London to live in rural Somerset. One of the greatest excitements about the move was the landscape I’d be surrounded by, which I would be able to paint every day from just outside my window. Our corner of the Mendip hills is lush and verdant, with dairy farms, apple orchards and narrow lanes winding between thick hedges. There are shades of green everywhere I look, and I’ve become quite obsessed trying to understand them, the blueness of the greens, its yellowiness, the way it glows purple at a distance.
I try to capture with my pastels the sensation of being inside a tunnel of beech trees, surrounded by ash or sycamore, the bright arch of oak and deep shade of horse chestnut, thick banks of nettle, brambles and cow parsley. The greens can feel soothing, restorative, inspiring… and challenging.
When I paint in oil, I never use green out of the tube, even though there are countless delicious shades available to buy. (I still treasure my ancient tube of ‘cobalt turquoise light’ with only a tiny bit left now, which I savour and eek out like it’s liquid gold). When I paint en plein air the hardest work is mixing and adjusting, holding the palette knife aloft and squinting to compare the tones. It could take hours to make my own hard-won hues: a bit more lemon or indian yellow, some ultramarine or (my favourite) phthalo blue, a touch of sienna or a dab of black, so many possible greens to create, so many paths to get there. I sometimes spend longer mixing my palette than on the painting itself.
With soft pastel there is no mixing in the same way there is with oil paint, and this is one of the reasons I adore working with pastels, because the same powerful richness of colour can be achieved, but much more quickly!
As I grab a chunk of pigment in my hand and another and another, I see different things I want to capture in the scene in front of me. I am working quickly and instinctively to try to build a tangible feeling in vivid colour. I work on coloured paper, unprimed wood, or dark mount board, for the texture of the surface and the kick the pastels create when laid on a darker coloured ground. My favourite surface to work on is pink, from which all the colours in the natural world seem to gain an added punch.
My first large-scale drawing after settling into my new studio outside Bruton was ‘Wild Garlic on the Bridleway’ (see above). It captured the soft warm spring light and the gentle mysterious distance of the undergrowth, (and the picture sold as soon as I’d posted it on my instagram account), but perhaps I played it safe with my greens? As the weeks passed I started seeing more than just green when I looked out. The damp dark greens of February slowly gave way to pale white-greens of shoots as snowdrops appeared, followed by crocuses, primroses, wild garlic, bluebells, meadowsweet, and eventually the hot flushed lush greens of summer which now slowly parch and grow brown. I painted woods, bridleways, fields of grasses, hillsides of cows grazing, wild flower meadows, orchards in blossom then in fruit. What I didn’t reckon on was how hard it is to capture the green of it all, how many varied greens there are. How endlessly challenging it all is. And the more I drew the more I ended up using other colours where green might be thought to be; I was avoiding green!
On both sides of my family, colour-blindness runs strong. My maternal great-uncle and great-grandfather, my mother’s brother, and my father are all colour-blind, as is my half-sister (and it’s unusual for women, affecting 8% of men but only 0.5% of women). My eight-year-old nephew and my seven-year-old son have inherited it. What they all struggle to see is green, or more specifically, the difference between greens, browns, reds, pinks and greys. It’s hard for them to distinguish traffic lights, spot apples on a tree or poppies growing along the roadside. My son won’t get to be a pilot when he grows up, even if he wanted to, as it’s one of the professions which disallow the colour-blind. But it hasn’t stopped any of these members of my family from seeing the world with artistic eyes. And the peculiarity of this colour-blindness fascinates me, particularly as I have always been so thrilled by and hyper-aware of colour.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how greens are seen, or not seen, how they can be captured and are so impossibly hard to capture. My iphone, which I use to document and sell my work online, really struggles to accurately represent the green of the work, let alone the green of the holloways and hillsides I photograph.
The colour green is associated with birth, growth, and renewal. In western cultures it is the colour of spring, health and hope, yet also, conversely, the colour of envy, greed, wealth and sickness. Green is associated with permission, with green traffic lights and ‘green cards’, and also with nature, the Earth, the environment, and our very survival. It’s the traditional colour of Ireland and of Gaeilic culture and also the historic colour of Islam, found on almost all Islamic countries’ flags. In China and most of Asia it is the colour of fertility and happiness.
In some languages, the word for green and blue is the same. Old Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese languages, for instance, consider blue and green to be shades of the same colour. In Ancient Greece the trees and the sea were described with the same word. Aristotle considered green to fall mid-way between black and white, but green was not counted among the core colours and hardly found in Ancient Greek art. The Romans valued it more highly, using it in their art, attributing the colour to Venus, and in Latin there were apparently ten words for different shades of green.
With all this in mind I try to pick my greens with more freedom. My daughter has green eyes and I am amused to discover that there is no green pigment in green eyes; like the colour of blue eyes, the green we see in her eyes is an optical illusion, caused by a combination of an amber or light brown pigment. As I develop my work using pastels, I enjoy this optical illusory quality of colour, and the fluctuating nature, definitions and provenance of the greenness I have become obsessed with.
I don’t want my work to replicate the greens out there in nature, but I hope to feel them and convey their feeling. As green dyes and pigments were once made of nettles, ferns, and leeks, (as well as copper fermented in wine!) I enjoy playing with the slipperiness of greens and the challenge of seeing and drawing green. And I look forward to autumn when I’m sure I will face a whole new set of challenges, grappling with the russets, ochres, scarlets and ambers out there.
Amy Shuckburgh, Somerset 2021
Unison Colour Greens I couldn’t live without!
Green 9, Green 14, Green 16, Green 21
Blue Green Earth 9, Blue Green Earth 16,
Yellow Green Earth 10, Yellow GReen Earth 13, Yellow Green Earth 18
Blue Green 4, Blue Green 7, Blue Green 17
Details of all works shown here
can be seen on Amy’s website www.amyshuckburgh.com