Experimenting with colour triads

I stare dreamy eyed at my palette, taking in all the glorious colours I’ve collected over the years. I plunge my brush into my favourite blue, guide it across my paper, return for some green, and then red, and brown and so on. The painting starts to look finished and I snap out of my daze, ready to bask in its glory. Except, on reviewing, it’s just a whole jumble of colours. There is no atmosphere. The view over the mountains is always bright, the streets are always vibrant.

You see, I’ve been having a bit of a creative crisis lately. I’ve been looking at the decisions I make when painting (or rather, the decisions I fail to make) and I’ve found myself lacking. I look at other artists work and I see a coherent language of colour. One artists preference for autumnal colours, another’s candyfloss tones. My new aim? To be conscious of my colour choices and their effects, and build up a language of my own. So I started a little experiment, and waved goodbye to my overflowing palette of colours.

It’s no great mystery that you can mix pretty much any colour from just three basic colours – Red, Blue and Yellow. Or Magenta, Cyan and Yellow if you are fussy. This stripped back technique is rather liberating. If a colour needs more red, you only have one red to add. Simple right? Pumped with enthusiasm, I leapt head first into my new project.

And stopped short. You see, I had to choose WHICH red, blue and yellow. By making a decision over whether I wanted each colour to be warm, cool or neutral I would effect the range of colours I could produce, and in turn alter the overall “mood” of the painting. And so the experimentation began…


A short peruse through the internet later and I had a list of recommended triads. If you are interested in seeing a comprehensive list check out Nita Leland or Jane Blundell, but honestly experimentation really is the best way to see what’s going to work for you. I tried a few basic mixes and got a feel for how the secondary colours (my oranges, purples and greens) were effected in each one. For example, a cool red and a cool blue made beautiful neutralised purples, but switch that red out for a warm one and suddenly I had something closer to brown. Next step, see how these work in a painting…

Because I had such a huge range of options I decided to see how they would look in a simple wash sketch, nothing fancy here and certainly not my best work to date, but I didn’t want to be precious. I just wanted to see the mood each combination created. For simplicities sake I tried to avoid mixing the colours too much, blocking in areas of each primary colour and a few of the secondary colours. P.S if you try this at home, pick a simple image that you can draw with ease and speed. You’ll be sick of it by your fourth or fifth pass.

Slowly getting closer. This stage is all personal preference, and I find myself leaning more towards the earthy triads. As enticing as the more vibrant triads are, I would need to do a huge amount of neutralising and mixing with them. As I tend to paint outdoors and in a rush, being able to just dip straight into a colour like yellow ochre would be much more convenient, and I’m a sucker for the neutralised tones the earthy triads make.


With some options knocked away I could start making more informed decisions. And then I second guessed myself. And then went back to my original decision. And then changed my mind again. Honestly, it’s been really difficult to limit myself in this way. I could easily just pick a combination to suit one particular painting or theme, but the fact that I want one option to function across a range of images, to create a language to represent me, is a challenge. Intentionally limiting myself, and making that creative decision, is a hard thing to do.


And so I guess the experimentation continues. Will I ever decide between a warm or a cool red? Who can say. But at least I’m a little bit more in control of my decisions now.

2 thoughts on “Experimenting with colour triads

  1. John Abbott says:

    Wow Rebecca, that was really informative and interesting. Love the idea of you developing your own language with colour. We always thought you def have your own ( wonderful) language with your style. I think it’s a great move forward for you and thanks for posting such an interesting insight to your journey as an artist. Hope all going well for you John x


  2. Bekki Mundy Page says:

    Loved this post and video! I tend to go for quads, picking one of each and then adding a fourth color by choosing one of the primaries to have both a warm and cool. One of my favorite quads is Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue, Burnt Sienna (PR 101), and Permanent Rose. Thanks again for all of the ideas and tips!


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