Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors
Illustration by John Hersey

Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors

with Mary Jane Begin

Video: Building depth in the landscape

Now that our watercolor is dry, I'm going to it's a darker brown.

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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

Building depth in the landscape

Now that our watercolor is dry, I'm going to work with pastels and colored pencils over that surface. And I've chosen pastels that are basically the same colors that we've used in wet media. The only difference is it's a, it's a dried stick of pigment. And it'll be easier to move across this surface with something as large as this. So I'll start with a brown that's very much like the brown that we used before which is, burnt umber. And I'll just blend it into the surface of this ground.

And I'm referring back to my, original photograph to make sure that I've got the value a little bit closer. It seems like this is just a little too light, so if I find that this warm tone isn't quite dark enough, I can also find another color that's darker, in that case, it's a darker brown. And I can also use my finger, and just rub the color on the surface and deepen it up that way. So this is really both about value and it's also about trying to capture the color that I see.

So, in looking at this, I realize that this ground, and I mean literally the landscape ground isn't quite dark enough. And I notice when I look at my pencil sketch, I had made a darker, sort of textured ground, clearly darker than the sky but not as dark as the tree. And even in the photograph it's clear that the tree is the darkest element, the grass ground is a sort of middle gray, and the sky is much lighter. So, in thinking about that, I'll go back to the photograph and really just try to match the color and the value.

When you're working, you know, you're not forgetting about the things you've already done. I don't forget about the value, I have to keep that in mind. Because sometimes as you paint you might lighten things up, and you say, well wait a minute, my value system is starting to disappear. So I'm always mindful of that, the more colors that I add to an image. Now you can see that I'm adding brown, and the brown is helping to make it a little more of an olive color. It's a little bit deeper. I might take a darker sort of color, a darker brown.

Again to build the color that's, that's here. I'm also going to add a little bit of that darker brown into the area that's kind of shadow shape. So I'm adding it throughout the piece. I'm particularly pushing it in the foreground. Because another thing that I am thinking about is the landscape. And what's furthest away is going to tend to be cooler. Because there's more atmosphere or sky between you and it. So I'm pushing things in the foreground to be a little bit warmer.

So in this system, I go from the warmest color to sort of middle tones to the coolest, color. And that helps to push the illusion. And it is an illusion, this is a flat piece. There's no actual space here. The illusion of of space. The illusion that this landscape is believable and real. So I'm creating a very simple kind of space but space nevertheless. Now it's not green enough for my eye. So I'm going to add a little bit of, I'll try really carefully to add a vibrant color, now this is where you're working on a neutral, you have to bring in some vibrancy even if you're blending it into the, the colors that are here.

And this is a very lime sort of green, but I'm just going to mix with my finger into the brown that's here to kind of make it closer to what I'm seeing. And you might wonder, you know, why am I using my finger to do that. You know, why not use a tool? In this case your finger has oils on it. And that pre-, you press it into the paper, the oils actually help to adhere the pastel to the surface. So it's kind of a nice tool to use. You can also use what's called a, a stump.

Or you could use, you know, the edge of a Q-tip or something like that, but, I tend to find that your finger, though it may not be small enough for the area that you're working in, is a great tool. I'm just going to push this a little bit further, and I might grab another kind of green that's a little less vibrant. Actually that's a little cooler so maybe I'll use that for what's happening in the distance. Remember about the system of cool color, I want it to be cooler the further away it is from us, the viewer.

So I'm just going to pop that cool color way in the background. I didn't intend to grab cool, that looked from here to be a darker color, kind of warmer color. But it's sort of a happy accident, and the truth be known that in making art, no matter what your media is, or that ,you know, if it's photography or it's digital painting or illustration, graphic design, pure painting with traditional media. You have to let the happy accidents happen with color. Because it's how you'll discover things you didn't know before.

And if you worry too much about a really rigid approach it doesn't work so well. So I try to keep it loose, and if something doesn't quite look right I just monkey with it until it works. You use a system to kind of rely on as your foundation and then trust your instincts, I think, to, to make things work. And so in this case I am trusting my instincts in terms of the colors that I'm picking, but I'm also looking at the system I created which is primarily on this palette.

I'm almost done with this green in the background, blending it with my finger. I still have some work to do on the grass and I'm going to push this darker tone a little bit more up in the foreground because I like how that looks. Little bit more into the shadow, but I'm paying close attention to make sure some of that purpley brown that was relating to the tree is still there. I don't want to bury that or hide it. I want it to be a part of the, the language of this piece. And again, I'm just using my finger to rub these tones together, to blend them.

If one finger feels like it's dry, you use another finger. We have ten tools in that way, although it can get awkward when you're trying to use your thumb. But it's almost there, and now I'll, I'll work on the sky as I sort of let this be for a little while. I might go back to it. I'm just looking to see if I have another green that will work. I don't want to pull too many variations of colors here. I want this, really stick with my limited palette and keep this neutral.

So even though I'm adding vibrancy over neutral colors, which is what I'm doing, I'm pushing them into the paper and I'm not varying the neutrality underneath, the tertiary color underneath. I use neutral and tertiary interchangeably because tertiary colors, browns and grays, are neutral colors or more neutral colors than a pure pigment, like a blue, a red, even a, a violet, an orange. Okay, so that's near to being there; I'll deal with the grass after.

And I will need to clean these fingers off because the next thing I'll do is the sky. And if I use my fingers in the sky and I don't clean them, a lot of this grass color will be up there. And that won't quite work.

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