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Why are tertiary colors important?

Why are tertiary colors important?

Tertiary colors are colors made by combining a primary color with a secondary color adjacent to it on the color wheel. For example, red is a primary color and orange is a secondary color next to red on the color wheel, so red-orange is a tertiary color. Tertiary colors are important in art, design, and even nature for several reasons.

Creating a Wider Color Palette

One of the main reasons tertiary colors are important is that they expand the artist’s palette. With just the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, and the secondary colors orange, green, and purple, there is a limited range of shades available for creating art. However, by mixing a primary and adjacent secondary color, many more shades become available. For example, red and orange can be combined to make a red-orange tertiary color. This adds a vivid, bright shade between the primary red and secondary orange. Several tertiary shades can be created between each primary-secondary pair, providing the artist with a wider spectrum of colors for more creativity and precision in their work.

Gradual Color Transitions

In addition to expanding the color palette, tertiary colors allow artists to create more gradual color transitions in their paintings. Going directly from a primary to secondary color can sometimes look stark and unnatural. However, transitioning through the tertiary shades in between softens this change and allows for subtle gradients. For example, a sunset scene could transition from yellow to orange to red by first blending yellow and orange to make yellow-orange, then adding more orange and finally red. The tertiary colors act as intermediary steps, making the color changes look more natural. This helps the artist create realism and depth in their paintings.

Harmonious Color Combinations

Tertiary colors also aid artists in creating color harmony in their works. The tertiary colors naturally share properties of the primary and secondary colors they are blended from. This means they inherit some visual compatibility and create harmonious combinations when used together. An artist can take advantage of this by building the color scheme for a painting mainly with primary, secondary and tertiary colors of a single hue. For example, multiple shades of blue-violets, violets and red-violets will coordinate well together. This provides many related shades to work with while maintaining a cohesive feeling.

Representing Nature’s Subtlety

One of the most important uses of tertiary colors is creating realistic representations of nature. Natural objects and scenes rarely contain pure primary or secondary colors. Instead, nature is filled with subtle complex hues like sage green, brick red and sky blue. Tertiary colors are ideal for capturing these delicate tones that are neither one color nor the other distinctly. Painting leaves, sunsets, skin and more requires tertiary shades of green, orange, beige and so on. Without tertiary colors, an artist would struggle to convey the complexity and nuance of the natural world accurately.

Fine Distinctions Between Similar Colors

Closely related colors can be difficult to distinguish between when only using primaries and secondaries. However, adding tertiaries separates these colors more clearly. For instance, it might be hard to tell a medium blue and medium purple apart in some lighting conditions. But adding blue-purple makes it easier to see that one contains more blue and the other more purple. This helps artists, designers, and others precisely identify colors for charts, data visualizations, color-coding systems and more.

Bridging Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are those opposite each other on the color wheel, like red and green or blue and orange. These can look jarring and vibrate uncomfortably when placed side-by-side. Tertiary colors can act as a bridge to transition between complements smoothly. For example, red can shift towards blue through purple shades like red-purple and blue-purple. This allows artists to combine complements without clashing.

Conveying Mood and Emotion

Interestingly, tertiary colors also have their own psychological associations, distinct from the primaries and secondaries they derive from. For instance, red-violet may convey passion, while blue-green can feel tranquil. Painters can amplify the mood of a piece through strategic use of tertiaries. A fiery sunset needs vibrant red-oranges, not pure orange. Similarly, an adrenaline-charged action scene benefits from bold yellow-greens in contrast to serene blues. Masterful painters utilize tertiaries to maximize drama and emotion.

Fine-Tuning Color Balance

When mixing paint to match a specific color, tertiaries help fine-tune the balance of hues. Maybe a paint mixture looks slightly too yellow – adding a touch of blue-green tertiary paint can neutralize it towards the needed shade. Or perhaps the blended color appears too blue-tinted – a little orange-red will correct it. Tertiary colors provide smaller incremental adjustments to color mixtures versus the larger shifts of primaries. Their intermediate nature makes them invaluable for perfecting color accuracy when mixing paints.

Expanding Gamut in Color Reproduction

In printing, photography and digital media, being able to recreate a wide range of colors accurately is important. The range of colors a system can reproduce is called its “gamut”. Primary and secondary colors alone provide a limited gamut. But including tertiaries expands this, allowing more precise reproduction of nuanced colors. Digital artists use tertiary blends to match real-life subject colors when editing. Photographs look more natural when printed with tertiary-enhanced inks. Tertiaries bring color reproduction closer to real life across many media types.

Subtle gradients in design

In graphic design and digital art, tertiary colors are frequently used to create subtle gradients that transition from one color to another smoothly. For example, a gradient background on a website may fade gently from orange to green by passing through the intermediate tertiary colors like yellow-orange, yellow-green, and blue-green. These gradients look natural and pleasing to the eye. Tertiary blends prevent jarring color jumps in gradients across design applications.

More options for color schemes

Having more colors available provides graphic designers and artists more options when selecting color schemes. Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors together offer a wide palette to pull from. Designers can create triadic color schemes using three tertiary colors equally spaced on the color wheel. Or complementary schemes from a tertiary and its complement. Split complementary schemes also work well with a tertiary as the central color. The increased choice tertiaries offer expands and enhances the color scheme possibilities.

Subdued tertiaries for calming design

While intense primary and secondary colors are bold, some design aesthetics call for more subdued subtlety. Tertiary shades tend to be lower in saturation than their parent colors. Their muted nature fits well with minimalist, natural and vintage styles. Using tertiaries helps create calmer designs than pure intense primaries and secondaries. A website, painting, interior design or other creation can benefit from the tranquility of tertiary hues.

Vibrant tertiaries for energetic design

Some types of design require bright, vibrant colors for energy and excitement. Tertiaries made from mixing two intense shades inherit some of that vigor. Red-orange, yellow-green, and violet-blue are examples of vivid blends with spirit. Youthful, playful designs full of movement and dynamism can utilize these energizing tertiary hues. They bring more life and vigor than muted tones.

Distinguishing elements in information design

In information design and data visualization, using different colors helps distinguish and categorize elements. But relying solely on primary and secondary colors provides limited options. Adding tertiaries increases the number of identifiable hues for color-coding data. Adjacent data points on charts can be disambiguated by tertiaries. Maps, diagrams, and graphs all benefit from extra colors tertiaries offer. Clarity improves when viewers can easily tell elements apart.

Accessibility considerations

When selecting colors for design, ensuring they are sufficiently different for people with color deficiencies is key for accessibility. Some colorblind users may struggle to discriminate between certain primaries and secondaries. Tertiaries can expand options to find more distinguishable hues. Also, avoiding pure green should accommodate the most common red-green colorblindness. Varying saturation and brightness of tertiary shades like blue-green aids accessibility as well.

Historical and cultural associations

Over time, some tertiary colors have gained their own historical and cultural symbolism. For instance, burgundy red carries connotations of European nobility and luxury. Teal blue evokes images of art deco design. And maroon is heavily associated with universities and schools. Designers can leverage these engrained associations by incorporating context-relevant tertiaries. But they should also ensure any color implications align with desired messaging.


In summary, tertiary colors perform a unique role situated between primary and secondary colors on the spectrum. Their intermediate nature provides benefits spanning artistic creativity, accurate color reproduction, dynamic design, data clarity and accessibility. Tertiaries fill the gaps, add nuance, build gradients, distinguish elements, set moods and more across a wide range of color applications. Any pursuit involving color selection and manipulation owes a debt to the tremendous versatility of tertiary hues. Their importance should not be underestimated even though primaries and secondaries draw more attention. Tertiaries truly are the unsung heroes steadily enhancing our world of color.