Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

The Colour Olive Green

Olive Green

Olive Green, one of the most elusive of all the greens.

The colour olive green always seems to be the colour of the trees in the distance but close up, the olive green seems to slip away and the greens that are left are altogether brighter and lighter.

Green is the colour that most us see everyday of our lives. It is the colour of much of the plant life on planet Earth due to the chemical chlorophyll which plants use to convert sunlight into energy. There are millions of different shades of green, overlaying each other and casting out yellows and greys. It seems that few artists brave enough to paint the sharp, acid brightness of a spring green. The darker olive green tones always seem to win out. Yet olive green is not the prettiest of greens but it does add depth and drama to a painting. It plays to the shadows that pass through the leaves as the wind blows across them and adds a rich warm golden glow.

The Olive Tree by Vincent Van Gough

The love of Olive Green.

At this time of year, the fresh greens bursting from Winter brown branches is a joy to behold. However few of us would choose to paint a room in these vibrant colours. Olive green though is far more acceptable inside our homes. Wall colours and furnishings that incorporate a drizzle of olive green have become fashionable. Historically also the colour won favour from those who could afford it so what is the history of the colour?

Old green glass used for bottles

Procuring the colour olive green.

Why is it even called olive green? The olive is a fruit given by the gods, so says Greek mythology. Athena gave the Greeks the Olive tree and it provided them with beautiful wood, a glorious oil and of course the delicious fruit. All these wonderful gifts would keep the nation fit and long lived. The powerful colour of the fruit, the olive green thus became a thing to be desired in its own right.

It is a difficult colour to create in its own right though. What separate elements need to be brought together to produce that deep luminous olive green? Try it with a palette of paints. Most attempts end up with a brown with a hint of green, a muddied pond of a colour. Historically it was as precious a colour to obtain as royal purple or azure blue, maybe even more so. No one plant dye is able to produce such a green.

Olive Green

The olive skin gave rise to the name of the colour

Creating the dye.

Old Fustic (Maclura tinctoria) produces a warm yellow dye and it is this warmth that lent itself to the production of an olive green colour. The Fustic is a tree originally found in the forests of Brazil and the West Indies. The dye comes from the heartwood of the tree. The warm deep yellow is then over dyed with Indigo and the result is olive green. It was both difficult and expensive to procure the Fustic and magical Indigo also. Thus the olive green dye was limited to those who could afford silks steeped in this precious colour. There are few portraits of people from the C18th wearing the colour green, in particular Olive Green. When you see the lengths that were needed to produce it no wonder.

Historical olive green

The much sought after colour carried a potential hazard with the addition of arsenic to the mix.

This recipe for producing an approximation to olive green explains how it might be achieved (but getting the colour to remain fast was also an issue).


‘Boil three quarters of a pound of alum, half a pound of tartar, into quarts of sharp ley for an hour, and in it soak the thread for three hours, keeping it hot all the while: how to dye it yellow: put into the kettle eight pounds of broom, one pound of corn marigold flowers, half a pound of crab-tree bark, that looks yellow and ripe, and add two quarts of sharp ley: when these have boiled half an hour, then dye the thread in the liquor as deep a yellow as possible: but if you can procure Spanish Yellow, an addition of three quarters of a pound of it will heighten the dye, and render it more lasting, for it is to be remembered, that all yellows that are designed to be dyed green, must be as deep as possibly can be. After this turn it green with blue dye. You may blue the thread with Woad, else with indigo, being first thrown into the alum suds, and afterwards into the yellow, and you will have a lasting green, so that a green dye is to be dyed several ways.’

The School of Wisdom; or repository of the most valuable curiosities of art & nature of 1788

The mineral Olivine is a semi precious stone used to make green jewelry.


The luck of the green.

Wearing anything green comes with all the usual folklores and superstitions. In 1778 Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist was experimenting with added arsenic to dyes to create a colour green called Scheele’s Green. Sadly it caused caused illness and death in both the dyers and the people who wore the fabric close to their skin. In damp weather the arsenic leeched out and supposedly was absorbed through the skin.

In some cultures green is considered to be an unlucky colour. Quite how that came to be the case when green is the colour of rebirth, fertility and positive energy is difficult to see. In Ireland green is the lucky colour which is a good job as Ireland is also known as the ‘Emerald Isle’. Emerald the gem is also considered to be unlucky. Emerald engagement rings are rarely worn and in Medieval times a woman wearing green was a ‘fallen woman’.

A colour called drab olive was used to dye the uniforms of soldiers in WWI. It was used to camouflage the troops in the field and so olive green has long been seen as a military colour. When mixed with browns as well it does the job very well but it is the heightened golden olive green that was desired for fashion.