In spring, it's easy seeing green

What is the color of spring? Green, of course. A fresh, new green. Green for "go." But how many greens are there in nature? The more I look, the more I see. Green, nature's ubiquitous background, is restful and accommodating as no other color is. Its vividness in the most brilliant light isn't harsh. Imagine if most tree and plant leaves were bright blue, the grass vermilion or purple, like negative color film. We'd soon tire of it. Green can never be too much of a good thing.

It is possible primitive peoples were not so discerning about color differences as we are today. Perhaps in future millenniums, the subtle differences we perceive among all these greens - particularly in spring, before summer darkens and averages everything - will be seen to be much wider than we thought. Some painters have already found in the contrast between certain greens an optical resonance, a color excitement, as essential and telling as that between red and blue or purple and orange. There are silvery greens, earthy greens, greens so yellow that they might be yellow, so blue that they might be blue. There are grayish greens. Dark bottle greens. Vibrant greens, tangy greens, watery greens, juicy greens, even dull greens.

Tubes of artists' paint are named in an attempt to express the various qualities and tone values of greens - sap green, earth green, emerald green, moss green, viridian. In older periods, green pigments were marketed with further names - "ceder" (sic) green, malachite, green verditer - all connected with copper. Some old greens were named after people or places: Scheele's green, Brunswick green, Prussian green. But certain pigments become outdated and the modern range of greens is different from that of the 16th century, though one or two survive.

We think we know what these labels mean - until we actually mix the pigments and find ourselves thrown, frankly, into an adventurous arena of discovery and surprise. Yet to make paint somehow capture or convey the range of greenness we see in nature is notoriously difficult. I have spent long afternoons in fields, arousing the curiosity of cows, attempting to echo on canvas or board the green that surrounds me. It never really works. The mysterious success of great painters with the color green ... is a mysterious success. I think of Constable, Van Eyck, Sisley. But such masters are few and far between.

Walking along the path parallel to the highway, I find myself in a positive welter of noticing, as if I have never seen the greening wonders before. All the trees I see just now are speckling and sparkling in the morning shine. They come into new leaf at different rates. The oaks - scarcely waking up at all - are much later than the willows, and the birches, now like a green mist, are marginally ahead of the beeches.

Each tree is a different green. The yellowy green limes hang their sticky nascent leaves out to dry like sad moths not sure they actually want to emerge from their chrysalises. The larches, those conifers unusual for not being evergreen, are feathering up with their soft needles, a light green unique in its gentle brightness.

The horse chestnuts unfold their five-fingered leaf formations like untidy 18th-century fops flaunting floppy green handkerchiefs; they have yet to spread out firmly and look as if they mean business. The green beeches have yet to lose their magical, newborn sheen and become a tougher green altogether. The copper beeches, a soft sandy brown color now, will soon become deep and dark, some almost black - glorious too, but not the same.

Green may be the typical color of spring, but some leaves emerge in a variety of other soft hues that harmonize with the greens - copper, salmon, apricot, beige. However, the colors of many spring blossoms assault us with an overdressed carnival of blatant pinks, yellows, oranges, and carmines, all clashing merrily. Without the calm greening of the world, such excesses would be florid indeed.

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