Australian Fine Artist

Triadic Colour

David Chen’s 9 Monthly Art Workshops

These notes are from my most recent all day workshop with David Chen. Each full day covers over five hours of theory and practical work, and are planned by David to help us to understand an important aspect of planning, composing and creating our paintings so that they not only look beautiful but also look “right” as far as tonal contrast, perspective, composition, colour mixing and application of our paint.

For this session I showed David a still life that I have recently finished and the photos I took to use as references for not only this works but future ones if I wish to do another in a series. I talked to David about my decision making process as I composed the work and he agreed with much of my final choices which is very encouraging! He suggested that I use one of my reference photos for today’s workshop, which I did. Still life has not been my best subject in the past and I have received my worst critique from a couple of artists/art teachers (unsolicited in one case) on what I thought was one of my best attempts. So understandably I broach this subject with some nerves and am trying to work my way past it.

Working with only three colours can be liberating at the same time as it is restrictive. You have to broaden your thinking to tonal values and nearly ignore that actual colours unless they fall closely to the temperature of the one in your reference. One example is the burnt sienna I used instead of red, a warm for a warm with similar tonal values. It looked a bit weird but I ended up making a better painting in the muted tones where I had to do a lot of substituting and work purely on tonal values than I did on the brighter high key painting that was done first thing in the day. I am not sure if it because it took a while for me to get my eye in, or if I have a natural gift more in one way than the other. I has given me a bit of a project to work on at TAFE this week for painting. I have a piece that I have blocked in and David said it was a good example to try this method out on again, this time using Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Crimson and Cadmium Yellow for the Triadic Colours. This will be high key rather than muted so a chance for me to have another go and do a better job.

Day Four

Workshop Plan:

  • Triadic colour schemes
  • Demonstration (using our own references or copying one of David’s)
  • A High Key Triadic scene
  • A Muted Triadic scene
  • Practice
  • Paint-on critique

What is Triadic Colour?

Pic reference courtesy of

Pic reference courtesy of

Triadic Colour Scheme
A triadic colour scheme uses colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel. Triadic colour harmonies tend to be quite vibrant, even if you use pale or unsaturated versions of your hues. To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colours should be carefully balanced – let one colour dominate and use the two others for accent. For example one would be a light colour and the other two darks or the other way around, two darks and one lighter. Keep in mind that you can also use white with these to gain the advantage of tonal values.

For further descriptions of colour systems I have found a very good web site that I used when researching further after yesterday’s workshop. If you are struggling with colour systems it has great diagrams and simple explanations. The web address is:

Here are some examples of the system:

High Key (or Chrome) Colours (Series 4-7 Paints)

  • Cadmiums (all of them)
  • Cobalts

Muted Colours (Series 1-2 Paints)

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Yellow Ochre

Sample Muted Colour Selection

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Yellow Ochre or Light Yellow

Sample High Key (Chrome) Colour Selections

  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Cadmium Red
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Permanent Crimson
  • Viridian
  • Cadmium Red
  • CadmiumYellow
  • Cadmium Red
  • Prussian Blue

Keep in mind that you also have all the tonal ranges of these colours to use by the addition of white, so you are not as restricted as you may think at first. In one way, taking away the confusion of colours (as so many are out there) leaves you free to be more creative with your painting. If you keep in mind your tonal values as the colours are not of any importance.

This is a great exercise to show up your colour bias when painting. I now had a good idea that I was biased towards cool colours. This just means that more practice painting in the warm side of the colour wheel will make me better as a tonal artist no matter what the colour I am using. I will be free then to use any colour I like for any subject and get an excellent and believable result.


Try painting a scene with only 3 colours from the colour wheel using the above diagram as your example, plus white. The colour straight out of the tube will be your darkest tone, and you can lighten it using the white to get as many values as you like. You can also mix two of these colours with each other, then start adding white which gets you even more colours and tones. Choose any subject and paint it with these colours. It doesn’t have to be photo realistic, in fact use the photo as a guide only, not as the rule to stick to. It may be a good idea to discard the photo after you have the basic idea and paint creatively and not as a slave to your reference.

During these exercises composition is not the aim, I was totally unconcerned with creating a finished painting but learning the lesson of using the colours.

Below are the 2 works I did at the workshop. They could always be improved but I was not aiming at completing a finished artwork, but at practice pieces. They reflect process and not completion and as such I am happy. You may note that I have a wider tonal range in my muted painting than the high key. This of course may also be attributed to the fact that this was the second work of the day and I was more awake! It was also my second stab at the same subject so I had worked out a few of the kinks from the first.

triadic colour paintings

David looked at all our works at the end of the day and showed us where our paintings could be improved. Apart from a couple of little marks and showing me that my background needed to be a little more varied in the high key version, he left my work alone and showed it to the class (especially the muted work) to show how the paint and tone could be manipulated. He did say my weakness for the high key colours needs some practice but was sure I can master it! I was more than pleased that he thought I had done well on the day.

I was happy that I was able to paint the second work mostly from memory rather than continually going back to the photo for reference. My goal was a painting, not a copy of my photograph. That was more evident by the orange in the paintings not being in the photo at all. David suggested that I try putting one in, so I had a go at it! I knew where the light source was, and I know what an orange looks like, so why not!

David said he liked my second painting more than the first and asked me why he did. I didn’t answer him well at the time but looking at them both side by side now, the tonal range in the second is much better, the light and shadow falling across the surface and around the orange is better, the light coming in from the left is better and the modelling on the orange is better, there is also more range in the background and the brushstrokes are more interesting. This happened when I stopped looking at my reference and painted what I knew rather than what I was looking at.

I have promised that I will spend some time during the next week practising my high key triadic colours at TAFE, so on painting days get ready for at least one painting based on this method!

Thank you David for yet another fantastic workshop!

Comments on: "Triadic Colour" (1)

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