More Magical, Turbulent History of The Color Green

Jude Stewart’s Beyond the Color Chart Bootcamp will teach you to wield color—including the color green, as detailed below—more intelligently in your graphic design practice. Register for this online course here.


Welcome to part 2 in my mini-series on the new book GREEN: The History of a Color by French art historian Michel Pastoureau. The third volume in a five-book series, GREEN traces a remarkably detailed history of the color’s ups and downs in Western culture. (Catch up on part 1 here).

“At the end of the Middle Ages, green, so admired in the time of chivalry and courtesy, began to lose standing,” writes Pastoureau. The same mercurial qualities that associated the color green with changeable youth, vigor and love began to curdle, revealing the darker side of fickleness. The reasons green suffered its fall are numerous (and a bit inconclusive): Pastoureau cites the difficulty of finding a chemically stable dyeing agent to make green, and the immense promotion of blue as the Virgin Mary’s color (with green seen as a not-quite-pure variation of blue).

Rit-dyeing-greens by quiltexplorer via Flickr: http://bit.ly/1xcWqCA

Rit-dyeing-greens by quiltexplorer via Flickr: http://bit.ly/1xcWqCA

The trickiness of dyeing in the color green was compounded by medieval guildsmen rules that forbade mixing blue with yellow. Indeed the dyeing trade was so specialized, those craftsmen who worked in blue were forbidden to work in other colors, particularly yellow – making it nearly impossible even to experiment with mixing the two colors.

blue and green handmade batik paper by Scott Moore via Flickr: http://bit.ly/1tQbBlq

blue and green handmade batik paper by Scott Moore via Flickr: http://bit.ly/1tQbBlq

Satan’s bestiary was stocked with green creatures, and Beelzebub himself shifted from a hideous black-and-red complexion to green-skinned during this period. Reflecting the thinking of civil and religious authorities at that time, colors fell into clear-cut categories: “honest” shades like vert gai in Middle French versus murkier or morally ambiguous shades like vert perdu, “lost green”.

 Green Dragon by Cécile Bègue via Behance: http://bit.ly/1u6JvCi


Green Dragon by Cécile Bègue via Behance: http://bit.ly/1u6JvCi

Even the green knights of King Arthur’s roundtable – young, impatient, raring to joust – gave way to more troubling all-green figures. The legendary knight Gawain finds himself summarily challenged by a gigantic, all-green knight armed with a battle axe. He proposes a deadly game to any willing takers: strike him a blow with his own battle axe, and a year and a day later he will return that blow on the challenger in a place called the “Green Chapel”. Gawain accepts and promptly decapitates the Green Knight – who, this being a fairy tale, collects his own head and slinks off. 


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A year and a day later, Gawain sets off for his rendezvous, a predictably adventurous trip in which he picks up a magical green belt that supposedly protects him from death. Cut to the Green Chapel:  The Green Knight pretends to nearly chop off Gawain’s head three times, at which point it’s revealed that this entire scenario was dreamed up by the evil sorceress Morgan le Fay to test the best knight of Arthur’s roundtable. In accepting the protective green belt, Gawain has faltered in his courage. Arthur ultimately accepts him back to the roundtable, where they all don green belts to remind themselves of Gawain’s failure of courage. Here’s green again as a fickle, changeable, ambiguous symbol.

Branding identity for Schloss Albgut, a castle in Germany. Design by HOCHBURG Design, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1qtLP1i

Branding identity for Schloss Albgut, a castle in Germany. Design by HOCHBURG Design, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1qtLP1i

Branding identity for Schloss Albgut, a castle in Germany. Design by HOCHBURG Design, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1qtLP1i

Branding identity for Schloss Albgut, a castle in Germany. Design by HOCHBURG Design, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1qtLP1i

The late Middles Ages assigned colors to each vice, matching green with avarice.  Green’s link to money is long-standing, predating the American “greenback” by centuries. (I explain why dollars are green in a previous post.) Deliciously, Pastoureau recounts the history of “green bonnets”, bankers or merchants who fraudulently declared bankruptcy to achieve some devious aim. Gaming tables and counting tables for accountants have been colored green since the sixteenth century.

Green suffered a demotion with Isaac Newton’s discovery of the color spectrum in the Enlightenment period. This discovery sparked much discussion in color theory, in which green was relegated to a secondary color, produced by mixing primaries blue and yellow. This is obvious now to us, but bespoke the color green as a trivial, derivative, impure color back then.

Logo and branding identity materials for Verde Salvia (Green Sage), a pizza restaurant in Italy. Designed by Pino Sartorio, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1tIsTzf

Logo and branding identity materials for Verde Salvia (Green Sage), a pizza restaurant in Italy. Designed by Pino Sartorio, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1tIsTzf

Logo and branding identity materials for Verde Salvia (Green Sage), a pizza restaurant in Italy. Designed by Pino Sartorio, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1tIsTzf

Logo and branding identity materials for Verde Salvia (Green Sage), a pizza restaurant in Italy. Designed by Pino Sartorio, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1tIsTzf

Green rose and fell in prominence from this point onward. The sole weakness of Pastoureau’s book is a glaring one: he seems to strain to make green’s story consistent past the medieval period. Green seems never quite primary, never purely positive until the Romantics, who first claimed it as the dominant color of nature. (Amazingly, this observation was new. Then again, green was considered the color of water and its murky sea-monsters for centuries – an observation that, frankly, accords more with reality than our current belief that water is blue.)

The color of nature, the fairies claimed green as their own color – zealously guarding it against human appropriation by rendering many green things unlucky. In fact, my book ROY G. BIV organizes the entire green chapter after stories of luck and its opposite.

“Subtle Greens” series in “Color Tales” project by Anka Zhuravieva, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1zAx0lV

“Subtle Greens” series in “Color Tales” project by Anka Zhuravieva, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1zAx0lV

“Subtle Greens” series in “Color Tales” project by Anka Zhuravieva, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1zAx0lV

“Subtle Greens” series in “Color Tales” project by Anka Zhuravieva, via Behance: http://bit.ly/1zAx0lV

This final image evokes another green common in modern life, what Pastoureau terms “administrative green”. It’s the color dominating post offices, train stations, newsstands, subway and street signs – a friendly, inoffensive neutral. As urban density increased, “administrative green” also evoked a restful dash of nature in the midst of an urban jungle.

Glorious green! Pastoureau has done another bang-up job with the third volume in his color series. Now for the countdown to number four…


Want to learn more about color? Check out these resources from Jude Stewart:

Beyond the Color Chart Bootcamp

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Color is critical to any successful design project – yet nailing the ideal color palette for a project is notoriously tough. Which colors connote the ideal blend of feelings, attitude, outlook and timeliness suitable for your brand? This course will teach you to wield color more intelligently in your graphic design practice. Register here.

Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (+ a free video)

t1388_1Jude Stewart, a design expert and writer, digs into this rich subject with gusto. What color is the universe? We might say it’s black, but astrophysicists think it might be turquoise. Unless it’s beige. Jude Stewart unlocks a whole different way of looking at the world around us—and brings it all vividly to life in this bundle which includes her new book Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. Get the book here.

Free With Your Purchase of this Roy G. Biv book: A video of Jude Stewart’s Roy G. Biv presentation from the 2013 HOW Design Live Conference, held in San Francisco. A $49.99 value, yours free with purchase of the Roy G. Biv book.

Watch a preview below:

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