I recently took a Watercolor Triads workshop with Jane Blundell through Art Toolkit, which was an awesome experience because I’ve been following Jane Blundell’s blog and learning about colors from her writing since I started watercolor two years ago. It’s a fantastic resource! Jane has full brand paintouts of colors, mixing advice, color comparisons, just tons of stuff up there. In the workshop, Jane led us through the exercise of making color wheels from two triads. Jane’s examples (such as those similar to her blog post on the topic) were much neater than mine – she has a stencil – but I made it work freehand!
For the earth triad, Jane used DS colors Goethite (PY43), Indian Red (PR101), and Cerulean Blue Chromium (PB36). I used Holbein Yellow Ochre (PY42), DV Indian Red (PR101), and WN Ultramarine Blue Green Shade (PB29), which isn’t anything like cerulean really, but because I’d recently removed cobalt colors from my palette, I had to stray pretty far afield for my blue. I went for a granulating blue to keep the earthy theme, but because my blue is much more purple-toned, I didn’t get greens in my mixes.
The spot in the middle is a mix of all three. The closest to gray I was able to get was still rather warm.
Modern Primary Triad
This is roughly a typical modern cyan/magenta/yellow (CMY) triad. I used Mijello Mission Gold’s Permanent Yellow Light (PY154), DV Red Rose Deep (PV19), and Holbein Phthalo Blue Red Shade (PB15). Jane used DS colors Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97), Quin Rose (PV19), and Ultramarine Blue (PB29), an unusually violet-toned choice. I had already used Ultramarine in the earth trio, so I went with a Phthalo Blue (though I used Red Shade instead of the more common Green Shade).
The oranges, greens, and purples are all pretty great with this set! You can also mix a pretty straight ahead neutral black.
It was interesting to see that Jane was inspired to do these triad wheels from the work of Nita Leland – I’d recently gotten Nita Leland’s Exploring Color Workshop out of the library, and the color wheels in that book were areas of fascination to me, too! Leland has a bright “modern primary” color wheel with Hansa Yellow Medium, Quin Magenta, and Phthalo Blue Green shade; or an opaque color wheel with Yellow Ochre, Indian Red, and Cerulean Blue (which is also the color set Jane Blundell uses for her earth triad). I found an old blog page of Leland’s which lists her favorite triads.
Leland also explains the general theory of how to choose triads that work well together from your collection, and build out other colors from their mixes. The key is to match colors on tinting strength, intensity (high saturation vs muted), transparency/opacity, and other characteristics (e.g. granulation); roughly in that order. of importance.
If you look at the color triads chosen above, they do share several properties:
- Earth: Medium tinting strength, muted, opaque (if you use Cerulean), granulating
- Primary: Strong, saturated, transparent, smooth
Here are some more harmonious triads I was able to make from my library using this method. Some are similar to ones in the book, and some are different. Please forgive my inability to draw a circle! My “wheels” look more like triangles, oh well.
Properties: Strong, Intense, Transparent, Smooth
This is similar to the Modern Primary set, but I made everything a bit warmer. Winsor or Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65) is an orange-toned yellow, and Quin Red (PR209), aka Quin Coral, is an orange-toned pink. They make very bold oranges together – some of the boldest I’ve seen! Quin Red is unique among scarlets in that it actually makes rather vivid purples with blue, especially a violet blue like Ultramarine (PB29). The greens are very muted, since there are no green-toned colors, but the oranges and violets are intense, making this a wonderful sunset triad.
Cool Glade Triad
Properties: Strong, Intense, Transparent.
This is similar to the Modern Primary set, but I made everything a bit cooler (more violet/blue/green-toned).
PY129 is a green-toned gold, and Phthalo Turquoise is a green-toned blue, so the greens are very deep; but because I didn’t use a bright yellow or Phthalo Green to mix them, they’re also not neon/acid green. This is a good set of natural but very deep greens for a summer or rainforest scene.
Purples are surprisingly vivid, despite the strong green bias of the blue. The purple-toned magenta seems to make a much bigger difference.
Oranges are sacrificed because neither the yellow nor the magenta have an orange bias. These look almost brown. Of course, brown may also be a more useful color for forests!
Properties: Strong, Dark, Transparent, Smooth
Intense and somewhat muted colors that make a range of warm, autumnal darks. Both the yellow (a mix of Nickel Azo Yellow and Quin Burnt Orange) and the red (a warm crimson) are on the warm side, so they make deep oranges. Payne’s Gray is sort of a dark blue, but very neutralized and contains black; it makes dull greens or gray-purples. You could use Indigo here, which is the same mix but more on the blue side.
Earth Triad 2
Properties: Strong, Muted, Transparent, Granulating
While Jane Blundell’s favorite earth colors don’t tend to be ones I use often, I have my own triad of favorite earth colors: a PBr7 raw sienna, usually DS Monte Amiata Natural Sienna; a PR101 transparent red oxide, either DS TRO or DV Burnt Sienna Deep; and Indanthrone Blue (PB60), especially DS’s very violet-toned, slightly textured variant, which is great for earthy shadows. This set makes great earth oranges, browns, grays, and muted desert greens. Because I’ve used an orange in the red spot, it doesn’t make violets.
More Triad Ideas
I did these even more messily from colors I don’t use as often, just to showcase some more examples.
Properties: Strong, Intense, Semi-Transparent
I chose the most on-the-nose colors I could for this one; red, yellow and blue like you’d find in a primary school classroom! Because red is more orange-toned than magenta, the oranges are bolder than in the modern primary wheel, but the purples are much more muted. I also found the greens from Cobalt Blue and Winsor Yellow surprisingly muted, though not in a brown way – just kind of washed-out.
Properties: Strong, Super-Intense, Semi-Opaque, Matte
This super-bright trio is the backbone of my Neon Palette, and it makes the most bold colors in every section! The most bold, neon oranges from fluorescent Opera Pink and Hansa Yellow Light; the most bold, neon (yet lightfast!) greens from Cobalt Turquoise and Hansa Yellow Light; and some really interesting color-separating lilacs and lavenders from Cobalt Turquoise and Opera Pink.
Properties: Strong, Muted, Transparent & Smooth
This is a darker version of the Modern Primary triad (but not as dark as the Dark Triad). Nickel Azo Yellow is a cool yellow that gets darker and more muted in masstone; Alizarin Crimson Quinacridone is a more warm, crimson version of PV19 rose; and Prussian Blue is a deep green-toned blue. These colors also mix a nice range in all three sectors, but they’re all just a bit more moody and deep.
Depending on what colors you like and gravitate toward, color wheels from your own collection may be quite different, but you can use the same process for figuring out which colors go together.
I learned that I can mix and match most of my colors because most of them are strong (high tinting strength) and transparent, with a mix of high-intensity brights and low-intensity moody darks. I have, by design, very few low-strength or opaque colors, because I tend not to like them. Many artists do enjoy lower strength colors, and a common combination for a low-strength primary triad might be something like Rose Madder, Aureolin, and Cobalt Blue.
After creating and exploring these triads, my next step will be to try to apply them in scenes. At the moment, I tend to use whatever paints occur to me for specific colors or areas in a scene, but in the class, Jane Blundell described the process of looking at your to-be-painted scene as a whole (in a photo or real life), thinking “what are the most important colors to have here?” and choosing a triad accordingly. By limiting yourself to mixing from 3-4 paints at a time, you will guarantee that your mixes are harmonious.