UART Tip #23: “How do I Deal with ALL that Green?” with Nancie King Mertz

My students often ask this question when we’re together in a plein air workshop, and they often remark that they “don’t have the RIGHT green”.  My solution is to start with a cool underpainting on the furthest section of green and then warm the underpainting as the greens approach.  This plein air painting of the historic I&M Canal in Lockport may help to explain my process.

This is the view I selected of the canal, which had a feeder inlet rushing at the lower center.  The sky was cloudy with sun poking in and out, so this photo is a bit blah. The surface is UART 400 archival dry mounted on Gatorboard and I’m using my new Urban Set (available on Amazon in my name) of Richeson’s soft pastels.  Almost without fail, I begin any piece, any subject matter, with charcoal “tic marks”, my 5 minute map that keeps me on track.

The darks always are applied first, and here you can see the cool darks at the top (far bank) and warm darks at the bottom.  This is done lightly with the side of the pastel and then I dip a fan brush (Richeson Grey Matters) into denatured alcohol to wash the darks into the UART.  This keeps them loose and transparent, and now that they’ve been “thinned”, I can easily paint over them with mid tones and then lights.  Often these initial brush strokes remain in the final painting.

Now that the alcohol is dry (just takes a couple of minutes), I start defining the cool areas.  Since the cool areas are more commonly in the distance, they are handled without detail, just slight value shifts. Plein air painting helps tremendously when determining values.  Direct observation is the best instructional tool!  If this were painted from a photo, all the dark values would appear almost black, and no subtle shifts would be apparent.  Also, extreme values such a black and white should be reserved for the foreground.  The contrasts that they provide draw your eye to them, just as detail does–use all sparingly and in the most important area–usually your center of interest.

Just for fun, I’ve included a close up of the marks as the piece is developing.  Please note that the tree is painted in different values, but of the same cool hue.  This helps the tree move in space, indicating that part of it is behind and some in front.  Students often make the mistake of painting a tree all the same hue, which results in a flat cutout of a tree.

 At this stage, I’m working all over the surface, adding marks to the cool areas as well as the warm.  When grasses are in the foreground, I often touch the tip of the fan brush bristles into a very shallow dish of alcohol and lightly brush UP.  This serves as a strong final underpainting upon which I can hit with the straight edge of hard pastels to form varied grasses.  The light is added to the water, and BINGO!, an egret swooped in by the inlet to solidify my center of interest!  How often does that happen?! 


This was an extremely hot humid day, so I wrapped it up in about 1 1/2-2 hours and will be forever grateful to the bird!


Visit Nancie’s work at For more information about Nancie’s UART workshop, click here.