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The green, green colour of the natural world

When leaves are budding and the Gardens are getting green again, what better time to have a look at the colour so closely associated with nature?

It's Only Natural

Green and nature go hand in hand. The colour conjures up growth, freshness, vitality and fertility. In fact, the word green comes from the old English grene, which has the same origins as grass and grow. If you enjoy gardening, you are considered to be ‘green-fingered’ or as having a ‘green-thumb’ due to its dominance in nature. 

For this reason, the colour is closely associated with medicine and healing, but this connection goes beyond symbolism. Studies have shown that green is the most restful colour for the human eye, reducing fatigue, with the wavelength of green overlapping with the area of greatest sensitivity in our eyes.

The biggest contributor to green in nature is chlorophyll, which is a green pigment that helps the plant or algae absorb energy from light (photosynthesis).

Green is a very dominant colour in birds, animals, and insects, as they have adapted to camouflage to their surroundings.

  • NH.27.7-IG, Green is a common colour amongst birds, especially amongst those that live in the rainforest. The green colour allows them to blend in with their surroundings.
    Green is a common colour amongst birds, especially amongst those that live in the rainforest. The green colour allows them to blend in with their surroundings.

Going Green

Green is associated with safety and trust as can be seen in traffic lights and escape signs, although the choice of this colour seems to have been related to it being clearly discernible from red. 

It has associations with vivacity and youth, through its abundance in the natural world, and this association with life, health and growth make it a natural choice for those who want to align themselves with green-focused messaging. Aside from some obvious organisations like Greenpeace and the Green Party, you will also find BP, Starbucks, and Landrover, who want to promote their associations with health and nature.

In terms of public perception, it is an equal choice, with 14% of both sexes choosing it as their favourite colour, although more women identify with green being their least favourite colour (6% to 2% of men).

Green Eyed Monsters?

Most of us know of the association of green with jealousy or envy, but why did this come about? The phrase green-eyed monster may have been coined first by Shakespeare, who uses it in Othello:

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Iago, Othello, Act 3, scene 3

Green has more than a passing association with the supernatural than the green-eyed monsters of jealousy. Fairies and dragons are often shown as green or wearing green clothing, and green gods are often related to rebirth and spring.

Green Men

Green men (not so much women) appear in lots of different cultures as important figures, whether they are gods, prophets or are integral to celebration.

The Green Man appears to have pagan origins, perhaps connected to ‘wild man of the woods’ figures who, in turn, are linked to satyrs or fauns. Despite this, Green Men frequently appear in church decorations and it is a common name for a pub.

Jack-in-the-Green is another green character from British folklore, who takes part in revels around May Day as a person (traditionally a chimney sweep) is dressed as a 3m tall bushy tree.

  • Jack in the Green, A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May" (probably both played by men) in 18th-century London.
    A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May" (probably both played by men) in 18th-century London.

Outside of the UK, Khidr (or al-Khidr) from the Quran is a messenger or prophet dressed in Green, the Egyptian god of the underworld Osiris has green skin because of its links to good health and rebirth, and Tlaloc, and Aztec god of earthly fertility and water, who also had green skin.

Dyes and Pigments

Green pigments that first appear in artwork originate from malachite or from green earth, found around southern Europe. Green dyes are rare, although did use ferns, plantain, nettles, lichen, leeks and others as accessible alternative, but these faded or changed colour quickly. Better dyes could be created by first dying the yarn or garments blue and then yellow, but this was more expensive.

Verdigris, the pigment created through weathered copper or bronze, was first used by the Greeks and is considered the first artificial green. Other green minerals include emerald and cobalt green.

  • statue-of-liberty-267948_1920, The Statue of Liberty owes its green colouration to Verdigris
    The Statue of Liberty owes its green colouration to Verdigris

In Artwork

Green in ancient artwork was closely associated with nature and rebirth, and was seen positively by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans in this regard.

In early modern Europe Green was associated with wealth and well-to-do merchants or gentlemen outside of the nobility, which had an association with red. Paintings like the Mona Lisa and the Arnolfini Portrait are good examples of this.

  • Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait features a woman in a green dress which at the time would have been a symbol of this family's position in the merchant classes
    The Arnolfini Portrait features a woman in a green dress which at the time would have been a symbol of this family's position in the merchant classes

This aligns with the modern association with money, which comes from the colour green in US dollar bills which was originally chosen to deter counterfitters.

In the 18th and 19th century the advent on new synthetic pigments saw a greater uptake of the colour, particularly by the romantic movement.

I sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions. The hall is blood red and pale yellow, with a green billiard table in the center, and four lamps of lemon yellow, with rays of orange and green. Everywhere it is a battle and antithesis of the most different reds and greens.
1888, Van Gogh about The Night Cafe

Learn more about green in our exhibition – Colour: The Rainbow Revealed