Green Earth

(Caledonite, Glauconite, Terra Verde of Verona, Ciprus Green)

green earth

Origin, History and Characteristics

The name green earth is applied to several different minerals, but most importantly in medieval painting is the light, cold green of celadonite, a natural mineral found chiefly in small deposits in rock in the area of Verona, Italy. Today the color is usually a durable mixture of chromium oxide, black, white and ochre, since the natural product is scarcely obtainable.

The mass tone of green earth is an unexciting, dull green. Mixed with oil it is transparent and soapy in texture, like a clay. The color varies according to its origin, ranging from a light bluish gray with a greenish cast to a dark, brownish olive.

However, green earth was much used in painting. Medieval artists used green earth pigment extensively as a preparatory underpainting for the representation of flesh tones. A uniform unmodulated paint in the areas was laid in where the flesh was to be represented which neutralized the effect of the pinks and reds of the subsequent flesh tints. In order to achieve a clean and smooth surface on which to paint, painters prepared wood panels with layers of gesso (a mixture chalk and glue), which was usually white. If the pinks of flesh were directly painted onto the white gesso, a "sunburn" effect in the flesh is produced. The green earth which now dominates many of the paintings of the period may be the result of the lighter flesh tones which have faded.

Green Earth in Vermeer's Painting

In Vermeer's painting green earth was found mixed with white-lead and a little lead-tin yellow in the lighter tones of the trompe d'oile curtain of Vermeer's early Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. In a recent analysis, unusually, green earth has been combined with ultramarine to paint the dress of the Young Woman seated at a Virginal. 1

A Lady Standing at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer
A Lady Standing at a Virginal (detail)
J ohannes Vermeer
c. 1670–167445.2 cm.
National Gallery, London

Curiously, green earth was used by Vermeer to depict the shadowed areas of flesh tones in some of his late paintings such as the Girl with a Red Hat, The Guitar Player, A Lady Standing at a Virginal, A Lady Seated at a Virginal, and The Allegory of Faith. The effect of green earth in these pictures is not always readily visible in reproductions but when seen directly it is quite evident and to most viewers, a bit unsettling. The aesthetic effect is more decorative than it is naturalistic. The effect of green earth can clearly be seen in the painting of the neck of The Guitar Player to the right.

Although green earth had been employed in a analogous way by some mannerists schools in Europe, after the fifteenth century, umbers and other brownish earth pigments were used in both the deeper and lighter shadows of the flesh. These tones have a warmer tone and create a far more natural effect than green earth. In the Netherlands, some artists of the Utrecht school were known to have used green earth in flesh tones. Since more than one scholar believes that the young Vermeer may have completed his apprenticeship in Utrecht, it is possible that the young artist became familiar with the technique in those years. Just why Vermeer used the technique in his later paintings remains an open question.

  1. Helen Howard, David Peggie and Rachel Billinge, Vermeer's Palette, "Pigments", National Gallery website, <http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/meaning-of-making/vermeer-and-technique/vermeers-palette#yellowlake>
Duccio, The Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea, and Patriarchs and Prophets
The Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea, and Patriarchs and Prophets (detail showing green earth underpaint)
Duccio
1312–15 (?)
Egg tempera on wood, 61.4 x 39.3 cm.
National Gallery, London
Guitar Player, Johannes Vermeer
The Guitar Player (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1673
Oil on canvas, 53 x 46.3 cm.
Iveagh Bequest, London