- Let's talk about tertiary colors: those colors made from mixing or layering three primary colors, two secondary colors, or two complementary colors. Sadly, tertiary colors are often referred to as: "Mud." That's just not fair to call neutral grays and browns mud when they're such a useful voice in an image. Even if they don't get to be the loudest, most vocal of all the colors, using the tertiary colors wisely as a kind of backup singer to the more vibrant hues can create balance in an image and establish a color hierarchy.
Sometimes tertiary colors can play the largest role in a piece, with only a limited need for vibrancy to make an image work. Tertiary colors can still vibrate against each other if complementary relationships are established between these neutral colors. Let's look at a painting that I created for the children's classic tale, The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame. The image is for the chapter The Wild Wood, depicting a frightening journey by Mole into the menacing woods. Because the text suggests a terrifying psychological space for Mole, I wanted the image to speak to the darkness and fear that he's projecting onto the woods.
A palette of neutral color with high-value contrast made the most sense for something serious and frightening. I like a ground or field of color to work on rather than the white of the page because it gives a context or an environment for the colors to exist. I chose to start with a ground of Van-Dyke brown with a layer of emerald green glazed over it, to create a neutral ground color that's slightly cool but not cold. Mole's state of mind expressed in the text suggested to me a painting drained of warmth and vibrant color.
I decided that the trees and ground would be a slightly warm brown, and Mole's color is also in the brown family along with the dirt floor of the woods. The variety of warmer neutral colors is made from cadmium red, yellow ochre, burnt umber, and purple. All of these colors have a reaction to the complementary-opposite ground. Although the reaction is subtle, it's still essential to get the colors to pop off the ground and help delineate the forms.
The rocks are gray-toned with just enough warmth glazed over the bluish color to react to the ground, as well. Notice that Mole is wearing the highest level of vibrancy, a pure red scarf made of cadmium red, next to a green coat. Two complements that, in this context, seems more vibrant than anything else. It creates just enough vibrancy to make the viewer focus on Mole and his reaction as the first point of interest. Also from The Wind in the Willows is this painting for the chapter Dulce Domum, depicting a group of field mice singing yuletide carols.
I started the painting's ground with a warm neutral color, Van-Dyke brown and burnt sienna. I chose to glaze this ground with a warm purple so that there would still be a complementary reaction to the colors in the brightest light. As this was meant to be a cheery moment, full of warmth, I decided that it needed to be a warm scene both literally and emotionally, but also realized the lightest colors used for the brightest areas would be reds, oranges, and yellows.
Using purple in the neutral ground created a complementary reaction to the opposite color placed on top, and created the greatest vibrant reaction in the piece. Similar to The Wild Wood painting, I used a wide range of value, the same focal color, cadmium red for the scarves, and overall neutral palette that plays with complementary relationships. Using tertiary colors and exploring a neutral palette requires more attention to the value system in a piece, and the use of vibrancy for creating a focal point, and the reactions of complementary colors at a subtle level.
Tertiary colors react quietly and discreetly, drawing less attention than the loud vibrant colors; but their subtlety and expressive qualities make them the color underdog for an artist, and seriously, anything but mud.
These lessons are applicable to a number of fields, including graphic design, photography, and illustration, and both traditional and digital media. Dive in and get a fresh look at color that is sure to revitalize your creativity and your work.
- Understanding why color is essential for you as an artist, designer, or human being
- Storytelling with color
- Understanding brand identity and color language
- Reviewing the history of color usage, from print to digital
- Working with the color wheel
- Understanding value, saturation, and temperature
- Seeing through color: opaque, translucent, and transparent
- Creating contrast
- Exploring depth of field
- Seeing complementary relationships in light
- Achieving harmony and discord in a palette
- Understanding color blindness