What Are Tertiary Colors and How Do You Make Them?

Color wheel with six tertiary colors

Traditional and digital artists alike deal with color in similar ways. Both types of artists understand three sets of colors: primary, secondary and tertiary. Combining individual colors from these three sets gives us just about every color our eyes can see. Those colors can be further manipulated by adding gray, white or black, and by adjusting luminescence and saturation.

There is a lot to learn about color and how it’s made. This post will deal mainly with tertiary colors. Considered the third set on the color wheel, tertiary colors outnumber both primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors are easier to understand by discussing how they are derived.

Primary and Secondary Colors

Primary and secondary colors highlighted on color wheels

Primary colors are those three basic hues from which all other colors are made. An artist working with paint or ink recognizes her three primary colors as red, yellow and blue (RYB). A digital artist working with direct light understands his primary colors as red, green and blue (RGB). There are reasons for the difference, but we won’t get into them in this post. The important point is that the three primary colors are the foundation of every other color in the spectrum.

Combining equal parts of two primary colors produces a secondary color. Therefore, an artist mixing paint could achieve the following colors with simple combinations:

Mixing yellow and red produces orange.

Mixing yellow and blue produces green.

Mixing blue and red produces purple.

This dictates that the three secondary colors for artists dealing with pigmented media are orange, green and purple.

For digital artists, the secondary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors highlighted on color wheel

Now, what happens when you combine equal parts of one primary and one secondary color? You get a tertiary color.

Note that there are three primary and three secondary colors in the world of pigments. However, there are six tertiary colors as follows:

Mixing yellow and orange produces yellow-orange.

Mixing red and orange produces red-orange.

Mixing red and purple produces red-purple.

Mixing blue and purple produces blue-purple.

Mixing blue and green produces blue-green.

Mixing yellow and green produces yellow-green.

It’s understood in the art world that tertiary colors are sometimes given creative names for artistic reasons: teal, chartreuse, vermilion, magenta, violet, and amber. These names do not alter the fact that a true tertiary color is derived from combining equal parts of one primary and one secondary color.

In the RGB world, the tertiary colors are azure, violet, rose, orange, chartreuse and spring green.

Starting With Hues

Color wheel with 12 hues on gray background

You might be interested to know that hues are the starting point for color mixing. Primary colors are considered pure hues because they contain only one pigment. For example, there are no two pigments you could combine to produce blue. The same goes for red and yellow, at least in the pigment arena.

Mixing equal parts of two primary colors to create a secondary color creates an entirely new hue. That secondary color, although being a hue, is not considered a pure hue for obvious reasons. The same goes for creating tertiary colors. You’re starting with one pure hue and adding an impure hue via a secondary color.

Why is this important? Because you don’t have to start with pure hues when mixing colors. An artist can combine any number of colors to create the perfect look on canvas. You can mix primary, secondary and tertiary colors if you choose to. You can also start with a hue from either of the three sets and create a shade, tint, or tone from it.

For the record, shades are what you get when you add black to a hue. Add white and you get a tint. Adding gray produces a tone. Utilizing different levels of black, white and gray, you can come up with all sorts of wonderful variations for your tertiary colors.

Tertiary Colors Give Us Variety

Jazz music festival with multiple musicians on colored floral background

Tertiary colors are important to artists because they provide variety. Imagine a piece of art consisting entirely of the three primary colors. There isn’t much variety in splotches of red, yellow and blue. Adding secondary colors spruces things up, but still not as much as adding tertiary colors.

You make different colors by combining those colors that already exist.

Legendary jazz musician Herbie Hancock

Herbie may have been referring to art when he made that statement. But what if he was referring to music instead? As a jazz artist, he understands the concept of starting with a fundamental sound and building on it. Jazz is unique in that it doesn’t necessarily follow the standard rules applied to other genres of music. Its rich sound is the result of skilled musicians adding musical color via their own instruments.

This is sort of what tertiary colors do for art. They give it richness and texture. They allow for subtle shading here and a little extra detail there. Without tertiary colors, art would look very different. Thank goodness they exist.

Check Out the Color Wheel

Color wheel in categories of primary, secondary, tertiary colors and all hues

In closing, you might want to check out the color wheel for a better understanding of the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The color wheel is a great visual aid that shows all 12 colors divided into equal segments on the wheel. You can easily see the relationships between the individual colors and the three sets just by observing their positions on the wheel.

Now you know what tertiary colors are and how they are made. Perhaps it’s time to get yourself some paints and experiment. Just remember that a true tertiary color is equal parts primary and secondary colors. As a digital artist, it is definitely easier to open up your graphic design software and just enter the RGB codes for the colors you want, but now you have a basic understanding of how color is made.

Finally, it should be mentioned that tertiary colors are sometimes referred to as intermediate colors. Even though these two terms are used interchangeably, there is a difference depending on which color model you use.