By Fiona Ellis
As Kermit the Frog has often told us, “It’s not easy being green.” Likely, one of the reasons for this is that the shade is almost fully dependent on other colors— blue and yellow— to exist. So dependent in fact, that in some ancient languages, and texts green and blue are referred to by the same name.
Plants and vegetation are often what first springs to mind when we think of the color green, so it’s no surprise that the modern English “green” derives from the Anglo-Saxon grene, the Germanic language root of which is the same as that for the words root, grass, and grow. But while the word itself is beholden to vegetation, green plants themselves are unable to yield a pigment that produces a green color as beautiful as those found in nature. Chlorophyll gives green plants their color but when using plants in dyeing the shades produced are more akin to brown than green. Early dyers produced the color by overdyeing these shades with blue or by mixing blue and yellow pigments to create green. Since the exact shade produced relies heavily on those of the blue and yellow used to mix it, greens can range from pale celadon or eau-de-nil to bright apple or deep teal and on to dark, muddied shades like hunter or olive drab.
The early Egyptians produced green for cloth by overdyeing woad pigment with yellow saffron. Egyptian painters however, used the mineral-based pigment malachite when working on papyrus or friezes. In Pompeii it appears that celadon earth pigments were used to create green when decorating walls.
In the East, textile dyers based their greens on indigo blended with yellows created from jasmine (Japan), turmeric (India), ochre or saffron. In many mural paintings indigo was also used, blended with yellow ochre or, alternatively, lapis lazuli mixed with orpiment (an arsenic sulphide orange/yellow pigment). In China orpiment was used, but here it was mixed with azurite to produce green. Because of this blending and overdyeing, many of these greens have degraded to blue over time. This phenomenon is one of the reasons that William Morris, whose designs were inspired by art of the Middle Ages, depicted the foliage in his wallpapers as blue.
Green also appears in the natural world by way of minerals
The high copper content of malachite creates a beautiful shade of green that’s been used as pigment in many cultures. Mined in ancient Egypt, it was used extensively to produce green for the paints used on papyrus and blended with fat for use as eyeliner. The Chinese, Greeks and Romans used malachite for paintings, though the Romans eventually abandoned it in favor of less costly green earth pigments. (More on those later.) Celandonite, a silicate material, was also used to create green pigment.
Verdigris, another favored source of green, is made from natural substances but is not a naturally occurring pigment. To create it, copper is treated with grape marc (the acidic residue from winemaking) over a prolonged time period. The reaction between the copper and the grape marc creates a corrosive (and toxic) blue-green crust on the copper. Removed and dried it can then be made into a pigment. Used in ancient times for wall decoration it’s been found in some frescos in Pompeii.
Green earth pigments, sometimes known as terre-verte, are made by crushing clay containing mineral deposits of celadonite. The iron oxide, aluminum silicate, magnesium or potassium in the clay provides the green color. Because this particular clay was abundant in France and Italy, the pigment was sometimes called “green of Verona.” Medieval painters used green earth pigments as an undertone to give a more life-like flesh tones—the green counteracted the sunburnt shades created by the red pigments of the time.
Mixing colors was costly and time consuming so by the 18th century scientists were soon researching and developing more economical and efficient methods of producing green dyes. These early forays led to the discovery, in 1775, of Scheele’s green, named after its inventor, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish scientist. By the 18th century it was widely adopted, though not without some serious health consequences.
Wallpaper depicting foliage appealed to the early Victorian aesthetic sensibilities and so it became the go-to look for most home décor in the mid 19th century. But the wallpaper’s production methods of the time resulted in color that had a tendency to flake off, covering the home in a toxic dust. Damp conditions caused a chemical reaction in the dust, which released toxic arsine gas. In the 1960s, scientists evaluating locks of Napoleon’s hair (he resided in a lavish green room during his exile in St. Helena) postulated that Napoleon’s death was caused in part by this type of arsenic poisoning, though the theory has since been debunked.
By the second half of the 19th century the production of synthetic dyes was fully under way, and greens were added to the palette alongside, reds and purples. Among them were viridian (1859), iodine green (1866), methyl green (1872) and synthetic malachite green (1877). William Perkin, the inventor of mauvine, the first synthetic dye, also came up with his own green, named Perkin green. New (and much safer) dye discoveries continued in the 20th century.
Shades of Symbolism
Green was linked with fertility in pre-Columbian civilizations and the Aztecs thought of it as the color of abundance because it was the color of the Quetzal bird’s plumage. In the West, green was most often associated with dyes that were not fast to light or washing, so it became known as the color of transience and instability. The Celts linked the color with misfortune—wearing too much of it, they believed, would anger the “Little People,” inciting them to kidnap children, spoil crops and otherwise cause mischief.
During the Middle Ages, death, illness, and devils were often depicted as green; those associations continued into modern times (the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz is one such example). Absinthe, the hallucinogenic alcoholic beverage favored by bohemian artists in the Belle Epoch, was known as the Green Fairy.
But green is also synonymous with nature: think of the mythical Green Man whose face blends with foliage and leaves or Robin Hood, who is always depicted wearing Lincoln green (woad overdyed with yellow), hiding in the trees of Sherwood Forest. Links between green and environmental action groups have become so entrenched in our minds that green has now become a verb for acting in a way that doesn’t harm the Earth.
Green has other links as well. Market researchers have reported that consumers associate green with new growth, health, and sympathy, but they also think of it as, slimy, ghostly, and sour. Green combat uniforms and camouflage link the color to war; green is also the color of jealousy (the green eyed monster) and inexperience (a green youth). We also associate it with sickness, noting that a person is looking “green around the gills” when they are unwell. In the U.S. it’s the color of money, creating an association with wealth.
Green is often the color that signifies permission—a green traffic signal for example. Why not give knitting the green light by choosing one of these extraordinary shades for your next project.
Fiona Ellis is the author of Inspired Cable Knits, Knitspiration Journal, and Inspired Fair Isle Knits. She is an on-line instructor at Craftsy and you can find out what she is currently working on at www.fionaellisonline.com.