Tuesday, December 24, 2019

More Primary Triads: Studying Warms and Cools

12/20/19 Caran d'Ache Supracolor in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Scarlet 70 (w), Golden Yellow 20 (w), Ultramarine 140 (w)

Last week when I posted about my earlier triad experiments, I regretted that I hadn’t kept track of the specific hues I was using, whether they were warm or cool, and other useful (or at least interesting) color-mixing details. This time I’ve documented better and even made mixing swatches next to the sketches so that individual hues are easier to see.

The first thing I learned from doing these triad sketches is that I’m not as confident as I thought I was about identifying cool/warm yellows and blues. I had a lot of practice identifying and mixing cool and warm hues in the secondary triad palette during my watercolor pencil class a few years ago, and those seem very straightforward. For example, a warm green has more yellow in it, and a cool green has more blue. Easy-peasy. Likewise, among the primaries, a warm red has more yellow in it (and therefore appears red-orange), and a cool red has more blue in it (magenta).

12/18/19 Faber-Castell Polychromos in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook
Light Cadmium Red 117 (w), Dark Cadmium Yellow 108 (w), Ultramarine 120 (w)
But what about yellow (the warmest hue, according to color theory) and blue (the coolest)? Logically, to make yellow cooler, it would be mixed with blue, but that would give it a strong greenish hue. In the same way, what is blue mixed with to make it warmer or cooler? Adding red to blue should warm it up, but the resulting violet changes the hue significantly.

When we had discussions about this in class, we learned that one approach to cooling a hue is to simply mix it with its complement. So, mixing a bit of violet with yellow would push it toward gray and therefore cool it down. In the same way, blue could be warmed by mixing it with a touch of orange. This approach is easier for me.

Why is it important to understand how to identify cool and warm hues? According to watercolor books I’ve read, if you stick with either all warms or all cools, you are much less likely to mix mud. Logically, this makes sense, especially in view of the complement-mixing discussion: If you were to mix a warm yellow, a warm blue and a cool red, that cool red is already leaning toward violet, which would mix with the warm yellow and become grayish-brownish mud. A warm red has no violet in it, so the mix is likely to be brighter and less muddy. Or so goes the concept. But I’m here to learn for myself, so in many cases I deliberately mixed cools and warms.

12/19/19 F-C Polychromos, S&B Epsilon
Deep Scarlet 219 (c), Light Yellow Glaze 104 (w), Helio Blue-Reddish 151 (w)
Of course, the pigment-mixing color theory (which is the one painters use and that I learned in class) isn’t the only color theory. Another one says that the three primaries are cyan, yellow and magenta (plus black, the four hues used in printing). I’m sure there are other color theories. No wonder it’s confusing!

Anyway, as I made these sketches, I examined my primary hue options carefully and tried to identify whether a hue was warm or cool, but I wasn’t always confident in my choices. Ultimately, I was having so much fun that I didn’t care. I simply decided, “Hmm, let’s just try it and see what happens.” (The latter attitude is always faster and easier than caring.)

One thing to note: As much as I love watercolor pencils for their intensity and efficiency when sketching on location, I find it much easier to control hues for this type of exercise with traditional colored pencils. If a color is off, I can just add more of something to change it; water complicates this process because many watercolor pencils take on an entirely different hue when water is applied. In one case, water activation changed a cool, subdued blue in its dry state to a very bright warm blue. It was apparent in my swatches before sketching, but I decided to go with it anyway and see what would happen.

12/21/19 Cd'A Supracolor in S&B Beta sketchbook
Carmine 80 (c), Golden Ochre 33 (c), Blue permanent 670 (w)
(This blue looks cool and subdued when dry, but when activated,
it appears much brighter and warmer.)

In the cutline of each sketch, for my own documentation (and your interest, if any), I’ve indicated the type of pencil, color numbers and whether I thought they were warm (w) or cool (c). To simplify my choices, I stayed within a single brand of pencils for each sketch. In all sketches, I used all three primaries for the cast shadow and left it dry, even when using watercolor pencils. I enjoy seeing these optically mixed masses (sort of like the red/green/blue dots making up TV images that fascinated me when I was a kid).

I hope you enjoy seeing my varying results. Ultimately, though, looking at my experiments isn’t nearly as much fun or as informative as doing your own triad studies. On your next yucky-weather day, whatever medium you use, I recommend making primary triad studies. You will learn more about your medium as well as about color.

(As I write this on the solstice, we’re in our third day of the Pineapple Express. Gratefully, my car is not submerged in a river of standing water as one was shown doing on TV news, though our basement had some minor leakage. It’s ideal weather for making triad studies.)

12/21/19 Cd'A Luminance in S&B Epsilon
Alizarin Crimson 589 (c), Lemon Yellow 240 (w), Cobalt Medium Blue 66 (w)

12/21/19 Tombow Irojiten in S&B Epsilon
Cherry Red 1 (c), Mustard 15 (c), Hydrangea Blue 8 (c)


  1. I REALLY appreciated the advice to mix yellows or blues with the complement to warm or cool, as I am still confused about warm/cool yellows and blues. Just when I think I am sure about a triad, I get mud instead of green or purple and think, "well, I got that wrong!" As always, your blog is so helpful to me. My secret sketching mentor ;-)

    1. Awww, glad I can be helpful, Anne! I'm still just learning myself, and my blog is sort of like talking-aloud to myself, but if it's useful to you, then that's a bonus!

  2. Thanks Tina! Hope you have dried out by now. Which color theory works best for you as you go out sketching?

    1. Yes, I think we're supposed to have a dry Christmas! :-) The funny thing is that when I'm sketching on location, I rarely think about color theory or anything else -- I just respond to whatever I come across. I only think about stuff like primary triads when I'm home sketching fruit. ;-) But my hope is that whatever I learn at my desk will sink in, and eventually I'll use that knowledge in the field. I hope it works that way! ;-)


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