Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors

with Mary Jane Begin
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Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors
Video duration: 0s 45m 32s Beginner


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)


Introduction: Laying a ground

- [Voiceover] I'm Mary Jane Begin and this is "Artist at Work: Tertiary Colors." - For too long tertiary colors, often referred to as mud or muddy colors, have taken a backseat to their more vibrant relatives. And in some cases, banished from a palette altogether. Their subtle voices are an important part of a palette and I'm excited to explore them as the main characters in my work. Today what I'll be painting is a landscape and the landscape is a photograph that I took in Kansas.

It's blocks and shapes of color. It basically involves sky, cloud, tree, and landscape. The additional reference material I'm using for this project are a black and white photograph to assess value. A pencil study to push the value range one step further and to play with textures and a simple color chart with the paints I'm planning on using. Tertiary colors are the neutral browns and grays that can be made from three primaries or two or more complimentary colors or two or more secondary colors.

What I'll start with is the neutral ground and in this case I'm gonna be using raw umber. Which is basically a kinda greenish-brown color. It's not exactly green but it has more green qualities than say a Vandyke Brown or a kind of chocolatey kinda brown. Typically what I do is I wet the paper first and you might wonder you know what this surface is that I'm working on. This is watercolor paper that's been soaked and then stapled onto a piece of wood.

Basically the piece of wood keeps the surface of the paper really flat. The reason why I soak it is that when you soak a piece of paper and let it dry and stapled it or taped it on the edges, it creates a kind of drum. A really flat surface that even with water on it, it'll stay flat. When you're painting, it's nice to have a flat rather than a really bumpy surface to work on. So what I've done is I've coated this whole piece of white paper with water so that the color will float evenly across the surface.

Now I'll lay what will be my ground color on top of this. As I said this is raw umber and when I lay down grounds I think it's always good to have a fair amount of color on the surface. If it's too thin or too light it doesn't do much of anything. You can bury that color very quickly when you layer or glaze color on top. It doesn't matter if you're working traditionally or you're working digitally, there are still layers involved.

It's just made in a different way. You can use transparent or opaque layers in both digital and traditional work, so the philosophy is really the same. As I lay this color down you can see this is a tertiary color. It's made from several primaries blended together, this is not a pure pigment. So I'll cover the whole thing and you're also probably thinking to yourself well why would you cover the sky which is very very light. I'll pull out my reference so that you can see.

The sky relative to the ground is really light but I'm still painting the whole thing in one tone. The reason why I do that is that I start with something that becomes equal across the whole surface and then I will start to think about the value system of the whole piece. Then I'll start to pull out color. If I go too dark, I'll cover up my drawing which can be an issue. Then I might have to redraw something. But this is the entire ground color, again it's raw umber, and I'm gonna take out some of the color that's here to create a value system soon as I coat the whole picture.

This is a beautiful neutral color because it has so many colors in it already. It's made from red and yellow and blue. It's a little more on the blue side, a little more on the yellow side that's why it feels green.

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