Teaching Color 3: Tertiaries

Student prepared Color Clock

Student prepared Color Clock

In my last post I was telling you about my struggles to use color effectively in my painting. To overcome the challenge I developed four disciplines: First, I adapted the color wheel to a clock which I discussed last week. Second, I embraced the value of tertiary colors which I’ll discuss today. Third, I forced every tube of paint onto the color clock. Fourth, I resolved to ALWAYS create a palette of color before beginning to paint.


It occurred to me that when you paint with a primary color you only need one primary color. When you paint with a secondary or an intermediary color (sometimes called a tertiary) you need two primary colors. But what about mixtures of THREE primary colors. Most of the material I read didn’t really identify this huge category of potential hues in any definitive way. A few sources, however, did by calling them “tertiaries” meaning a mixture of the three primaries. That is the definition that I embrace and teach.

Tertiaries (mixtures of all three primaries) would include all of the neutrals (blacks, browns, beige, and grey) of course, but they also include that huge assortment of low intensity, muted colors that make up most of the world. After all, in nature, there is a whole lot more brown and beige earth, muted dark greens forests, deep inky blue waters, and soft grey blue skies than there are colorful birds and flowers. As an artist I needed to learn to create those soft, low impact colors so that the bright colors would look bright instead of competing with the surrounding colors.

However, just mixing all three primaries offers such a huge number of possibilities that the result is sure to be chromatic chaos, if I can coin a term. A visit to any kindergarten class will show us what chromatic chaos looks like. So I had to find a way that I could mix all three primaries and still be able to predict the outcome. These mixtures of three primaries still had to have some harmony. I protect that harmony by building my tertiary color palettes around the complimentary sets. That is, those two colors that are opposite on a simplified color clock like the one above.

For all practical purposes, there are three important complimentary sets: Yellow-Violet, Blue-Orange, and Red-Green. Each of these three sets introduces all three primary colors because the secondary color in each case is representing the other two primaries. By using the complimentary set, however, the amount of the two missing primaries is tightly controlled.

By using any one of these complementary sets and white you can achieve a variety of browns and beiges, something close to black, and a beautiful assortment of soft, muted or dark, rich hues that are variations of the colors in your complimentary set. Additionally, you still have access to the intense pure colors of the compliments that you started with.

In a couple of weeks I plan to show you some painting that my students did using these complimentary sets and I’ll describe at that time how one builds the complimentary palette and then later how one can expand it.

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