If secondary colors are defined as the mixture of two primaries, then why aren’t tertiary colors correctly defined as the mixture of two secondaries?
Typically art instructors and authors state that tertiary colors are the hues between secondary and primary colors. For some reason, this misinformation runs rampant almost everywhere where color theory is taught. In my mind that does not follow logically based on what I just stated, “secondary colors are defined as the mixture of two primaries.”
The color between a primary and a secondary color is the mixture of a primary and a secondary color. They are referred to as intermediary colors. Artists, as well as non-artists, refer to them as: blue-violet, blue-green, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange and yellow-green, as seen in this color wheel. They are not tertiary colors.
Unfortunately, by not having the correct information, painters are missing out on some very important color mixing information. They are denying themselves the knowledge that helps them understand how they make mud and how to mix some yummy colors.
We all dislike muddy colors in our paintings and on our palettes. Understanding tertiary colors is not the only way to make mud, but this is one color mixing secret from which we can benefit and decrease the amount of mud we mix.
Some 25+ years ago, I was taught at the University of Minnesota that tertiary colors are the mixture of two secondaries, which makes logical sense given the definition of secondary colors.
So What Are Tertiary Colors?
Tertiary colors are the mixture of two secondary colors. We know secondary colors are: orange, green and purple. Let’s go discover what happens when we mix them. This is really advantageous to know and it is a great way to avoid mixing mud! Can you fill in the colors where the “?” marks are?(FYI, in the above image, I have painted swatches of secondary colors using watercolor, below I am mixing with oils.)
Did you know how to mix burnt sienna? Discovering how to mix burnt sienna is one of the benefits of understanding the correct definition of tertiary colors. You can see one variation of burnt sienna in the last row of the above image.
Experiment by mixing your different oranges and purples. You will discover yummy browns and your own burnt sienna. (Ever thought of not buying tubes of burnt sienna?)
How do I apply this knowledge? When painting the red/terra cotta rocks we have here in the southwest or pumpkins, I prefer using my purples to dull my oranges either by mixing or layering. I also allow some of the pure oranges and purples to keep their integrity. The colors are more vibrant and interesting than mixing with blue. Another interesting place to apply this idea is in painting the center of a sunflower where you can stipple your oranges and purples.
Below is an example in my painting of “Patches.” I did not use any burnt sienna that came out of a tube. The digital photo does not convey the richness of the browns that were achieved by mixing my oranges and purples. There are highlights of purple and orange throughout.
Then, when you are in the middle of painting with greens and you want a warmer or duller green, all you need to do is add some orange. Bingo! You have lovely olive greens. (See row two above.) Now, you do not need to own tubes of olive green. Even better, the colors in your painting create a stronger sense of visual unity because you are using tubes of paint you already have on your palette and not introducing another tube color.
Next, if you want to dull down a green or a purple, instead of going for their complementary color, add purple to the green and vice versa. In the swatch example above (top row), you can see that my mixture of green and purple makes a blue-gray. I use this often when painting flowers or in green landscapes. You can see an example below in “Iris Lady.”
Try mixing the three sets of tertiary colors and let me know what you discover. It doesn’t matter which medium you use — watercolor, oil, water-soluble oils, acrylic, pastel, encaustic, etc. — this color mixing principle can be applied. Now you know how to mix a ‘muddy’ color when you choose to, not by accident or mistake. You also know how to mix a quick olive green, your own burnt sienna and nice steal blue-gray.
I started this blog with the question, “Why are tertiary colors always defined incorrectly?” Unfortunately, I do not know the answer. It is a puzzle. I wonder if someone way back when just decided that the colors between a primary and a secondary needed a special name. This person apparently had not been a student of the color experts at that time. If you know the answer, I would love to know the source.
In my online video color class Acrylic Color Mixing Made Easy! we explore tertiaries further. I demonstrate the concept painting a purple sunflower. You are welcome to join us.
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