Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors
Illustration by John Hersey

Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors

with Mary Jane Begin

Video: Adding final details

What I want to do down here is use something that mimics the stroke of the grass so I'm going to pull perhaps a little bit of white. Back here is a kind of yellowy-orange. And I'm trying What I want is cream color so I'm mixing white and yellow together.

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Watch the Online Video Course Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors
45m 32s Beginner Feb 14, 2014

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Tertiary colors are the neutral browns and grays that, when over used in a palette, are often referred to as "mud." Though sometimes banished from an artist's palette, they play a crucial role. Tertiary colors give more vibrant hues a chance to shine and play a starring role in compositions with more subtle ideas or moods behind them. Follow along with Mary Jane Begin in this installment of Artist at Work as she explores tertiary color, its best uses, and the creative possibilities available with this palette. She paints a landscape based on a reference photo, and provides tips along the way about establishing a ground, adding texture physically or digitally, building depth, and making your focal points pop.

Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:

  • Arches 140 lb hot press paper
  • Tube watercolors- Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
  • Paper stumps for blending
  • Pastels- a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
  • Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
  • Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, #6, and #10 brushes
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)

Mary Jane Begin

Adding final details

What I want to do down here is use something that mimics the stroke of the grass so I'm going to pull perhaps a little bit of white. Although if I look at this grass it's not pure so I don't think I'll use the white pencil, I think I'll use another color here. Back here is a kind of yellowy-orange. And I'm trying to mimic the direction of the grass. We talked about mark making before.

And in this case I want the marks to standout against this ground. I'm going to use the white pencil and the yellow pencil to create that kind of creamy tone. And, it's just a little note of grass. It's a, this is a very simple landscape. What I want is cream color so I'm mixing white and yellow together. My marks in this case are going in a different direction than they did before, to draw attention to it. All the marks I've made have gone horizontally, everything, except tree and grass.

And so, you know, that's an important thing to remember is that the direction of your mark especially when you're dealing with a very limited palette, especially when you're dealing with a lot of neutral tones, you have to use something to create contrast. Direction mark making can be it. And I'm trying to warm these little white marks up. Like the white I used in the cloud with a kind of yellow color. And this is similar to the yellow ochre that I used, it's just a little bit brighter. And again, the reason why I'm using a brighter color is to just wake up the colors a little bit so they're not too neutralized.

And I'll do a little bit in the foreground and then we'll tackle that tree, and the tree right now is near to finished but I just want to focus a little more attention on it so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle and look too close to this color, this dark tone in the foreground. And I think when you start to look at this, this area that I'm doing right now is really details to fine tune or add spark to the piece. You might have said, well you could have stopped you know, a little while ago, it looked finished.

When I look at a piece I can tell when it near to done and when it's finished, and the way that I know is it, it feels to my eye that something needs a little extra push to make your eye move around the piece more clearly. And in this case, I felt and feel like these vibrant notes will help you do that. It also, it is something that I, it's just a personal thing, I like people to spend more time in the picture and if there's more color variation, and a little more complexity to the color they might spend more time looking at it and I see that as a good sign when someone wants to look more closely at it.

That's really one of my goals, is to keep them in the painting, even a simple painting like this. Okay, so the last thing I'll do, I have my grass here and I think that's pretty near to finish, is to take and drag some color in here that emphasizes this tree with a little bit more clarity. So again I'm going to use pencils for this, because I think that the pencils are easier to get in and fine tune and noodle with. So I'm using not a different color.

This is the same color as this green or very, very close. It's just a little, it's like these two combined, is what this color is. I'm going to go in here and just pop this light area that's right around the base of the tree, where the stump of the tree is. And I'm trying to match the green that I had used in pastel form so that it blends and doesn't look like an oddball color. And I'm also trying to use the purple-brown tone as a shadow color.

So I'm putting something around it that's much lighter in value. I'm remembering my value system, I wanted this tree to pop out so I made it dark, and I want the little shadow that it cast to be this beautiful sort of note of color. And as you can see as I add this color to it, it's looking ever more purple. And the reason why it looks purple is by contrast of the green next to it. There's a little bit of purple in that brown, but this green kind of wakes it up. And that's really the whole point of starting really neutrally. When you start neutral you shift to vibrancy on top.

I'm just going to blend this a little bit more into this background. I'm going horizontally, because I want this to be a note that you pay attention to but not as much as the grass. And I'm dragging this color across, as I see the grass on the photograph and the landscape that I saw in Kansas. Which I, so loved. Just going to drag this across and try to blend and bring the colors together. And hopefully that tree is a little bit more visible.

And I'm not going to color this area too much in the foreground because I want it to still remain dark. We'll add a little bit of the green to this spot here again to bring it all together. Because, remember, it's grass you don't want it to look like variations and spotty color, I want it to all come together as one note, one shape when your eye looks at it. A little bit more here. And then the last thing I'll do is use a color that I'm matching this color in the background, the pastel, this minty blue-green.

I'm just going to pop it right around the tree, but I'll leave a little bit of orange along the skyline there next to the tree because orange and blue are compliments and they'll fight a little bit. And that fight will make your eye look, and when I say fight I mean react to each other. And that reaction gets your idle look there. So I'm adding a little bit of white to match it to the pastel color around it, and, I think we're almost there. Okay. And as I just look across, I'll assess the whole piece.

And I think the only thing I want to do is add a little more green here. Again, I'm just trying to pop your eye to that zone. So you go from here to here, but I don't want to be exactly the same as this green. Add a little more white, rub it in, and I think that we're there.

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