Saturday, June 19, 2021

Trees on Location: Exploring a New Primary Triad


6/15/21 Japanese maples, Maple Leaf neighborhood

Nearly a year ago, I was excited to learn about a different way of looking at primary triads from Amy Lindenberger’s book on color. Instead of the traditional pigment-based color wheel and primary triad that painters use, Lindenberger uses hues that would look more familiar to printing press operators: magenta, yellow and cyan. In Prismacolor pencil terms, the three primaries are Process Red (994), Canary Yellow (916) and True Blue (903). Understanding this triad really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at color mixing that makes more sense for a glazing medium like colored pencils in which layers of transparent hues are optically mixed. Unfortunately, I didn’t explore it much further beyond studying the book.

Kathleen Moore, instructor of the colored pencil class I just finished at Gage Academy, also uses the Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue triad, which she discussed several times during the course. (In fact, she says this triad makes sense even for traditional paint media, and she uses it with watercolors and oils, too.) For field sketching, she brings only the triad plus Black Grape (996) and/or Sepia (948) for the darkest value. For our final lesson, she demo’d using nothing but that limited palette to draw trees on location while camping at Kalaloch. The assignment was to do the same: Draw a tree from life using only that limited palette. Finally, I would have the opportunity to explore the possibilities of this triad – and in the field!

For my first attempt, I walked a few blocks from home to where I have seen a row of Japanese maples (the variety that stays dark red all year; above). Because their foliage is dense, it seems easier to see the shapes of the leafy branches and the dark, shadowy areas underneath. That was my theory, anyway. Depicting the deep red of these maples was difficult with this triad, but it helped to have both Black Grape and Sepia to make the shadows as dark as possible. (I can’t explain the presence of the cone; perhaps it came along with the excavator across the street.)

My second attempt was also just a couple of blocks away (below). Although I could have applied more blue to make the tree more green instead of yellow, I liked the stark complementary contrast with the Black Grape shadows. (Yes, the class is in drawing nature, not urban sketching, but most of the nature I see must coexist with humans and their need for utilities, so it’s an urban sketch after all.)

6/16/21 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Since I’m much more accustomed to the speediness of watercolor pencils on location, I thought the Prismacolors would take longer, but each of these sketches didn’t take much longer than usual. The additional time probably went more toward thinking and planning values and composition in ways that we have been studying in Kathleen’s class. I thoroughly enjoyed the last lesson, as it was the most applicable to urban sketching, and the primary triad has got me thinking. . .

I have pulled out colors from my water-soluble pencils as close as I could find to the Prismacolor triad. Looking forward to giving them a try on location!


  1. I think these sketches are really appealing, and I agree, definitely fit in with Urban Sketching! I look forward to see what your approach will be with your new knowledge, and what colors you will pick out. By-the-way, I really enjoy the Uni Watercolor pencil kits you talked about, great colors and the kits are very portable!

    1. Thank you, Cathy -- my primary triad post is coming up! Oh, did you get the Uni kits? They are adorable, aren't they! I'm still working on my own custom version of it... missing a key component, though!

    2. Look forward to see what you come up with!

  2. I like the way you are capturing the shadowed areas with the darkest of the triad colors. These are really nice.


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