California is a different color

In many years of painting landscapes of the Berkshires and other eastern scenes, I had worked out which paints best captured the kinds of greens you find on maples, hornbeams, birch—luscious leaves full of water and chlorophyll. (I usually mix all the greens I use.) Phthalo Turquoise mixed with Hansa Yellow Medium for the freshest leaves; with New Gamboge for the full green of summer, with French Ultramarine for darks and perhaps some Quinacridone Pink to “toughen up” the sweetness.

The Santa Barbara beach and pier

The Santa Barbara beach and pier

The greens in California, I found, are different: grayer, drier, leathery. One of the first things I did with my paints during our stay in Santa Barbara was to look around the deck of the house we were renting and see what made these greens. The live oaks: Quinacridone Deep Gold added to Phthalo Turquoise and Hansa Yellow Medium made a good leathery green. The tree ferns: Green Gold with Cobalt Blue. The cool yellow of Aureolin, a paint I don’t use much, mixed with cobalt caught the green of sycamore leaves, still full of yellow in the California spring. Quinacridone Purple with turquoise made a gray-green perfect for the exotic Pride of Madeira shrub back by the creek.

Other aspects of the view seem to require different colors, too. The Pacific has the look of Homer’s wine-dark sea, while the Atlantic is typically a merciless, steely gray. A line of red through ultramarine worked for the clear far horizon where the Channel Islands lurk off the Santa Barbara Coast. If there was haze, it had a pink tinge. Closer to shore, the water is greenish, maybe because the sand underneath has a yellow rather than gray cast. Phthalo blue, a powerful blue I rarely use, mixed with some Green Gold seemed to catch it.

The sky seemed more cerulean than cobalt, especially near the horizon. The bluffs by the shore show off that red-gold California soil: Cadmium Red for sunny parts and purple for shadows. The salt-sprayed foliage that drapes down the cliffs has tiny gray-green leaves, maybe gamboge mixed with turquoise and a little red.

The sand was the hardest thing to capture—light where it was dry and reflecting the sun, dark where it was still wet. There was purple in it, but also some of the rusty red of the cliffs. New Gamboge, cadmium red, and ultramarine? Quinacridone Pink, gamboge, and purple? I kept trying different combinations.

California of course is known as the “golden state.” So perhaps it’s fitting that two of the Daniel Smith watercolor paints useful for the California landscape are ones I have hardly used in my East Coast work—Quinacridone Gold and Quinacridone Deep Gold.