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Some colours may be harmonious when they are displayed together and some may not. The human eye can perceive harmony or disharmony right away as it is a natural instinctive response. We don’t have to think about it to judge it. I haven’t researched on the origin of this response but, even if it is cultural, it has been so conditioned that it has become natural.
It seems that harmony is related to the notion of order and disharmony to disorder. So colours that are harmonious must belong to a scheme. And if they are too different from a scheme, they would be seen as disharmonious.

RYB Colour Wheel

The triadic colour scheme is a combinaison of 3 colours in a picture or a painting that are not picked up randomly but are arranged as an equilateral triangle over the colour wheel.
This triadic system enables the photographer or the painter to choose a palette based on a contrast he wants to achieve while maintaining balance. There is inevitably one of the colours that is on the other side of the cold-warm colour contrast. But the balance is achieved by the two other colours on the same side, and by the fact that the triangle is a kind of basic sum up of the wheel.
There are 4 basic schemes. The first one is based on the primary colours, the second one is based on the secondary colours and the two last ones are based on the tertiary colours. This achieves balance as well, as the three colours belong to the same mixed palette.


triadic colour systems

How it works

Most often than not, the colours chosen are shades or tints of the reference colour. And they may not have the same value. You can have a light blue with a dark red and a basic yellow for example.
They are seldom seen sharing the same amount of space. More generally, one of the colour is used as a dominant colour, the second as a secondary colour and the last as an accent. But everything is possible.
In the photo ‘Mysterious Folds’, at the beginning of this post, the colour scheme is intermediary between the second and the third scheme. The greens are the dominant colours, the yellow-orange is the secondary colour, and the purple is the accent. The palette is cold (green, purple) with a warm contrast (yellow-orange).

The meaning and the storytelling

The meaning and the storytelling related to this scheme may be diverse but will fall into one of these categories :
– a three fold story : each colour represents a step
– an opposition and a middle way (the opposition is a natural one most of the time, it is not a feud that would be better rendered with the use of a two colour scheme and complementary colours)
– a neutral point splitting into two separate things (as a natural consequence)
– two separate things reconciled into something else (like a birth, a conception, a mixing)
– a trinity : three aspects of something making up a unity
– wholeness despite diversity

I could add other key words to this list but you get the picture, in the end, balance is the main theme.

Case study 1: the picture ‘Mysterious Folds’

Mysterious Folds


mysterious folds systemGreens (dominant colour) = foliage, the context, the surrounding
Orange (secondary colour) = flower, the subject
Purple (accent) = buds and the background, the source
The emphasis is laid on the flower (the contrasting colour) which seems to emerge from the surrounding. It can be understood as a three fold story : a seed-source (the buds) in a nurturing context (foliage) gives birth to a flower.

Case study 2 : the picture ‘Cornucopia’ (from this blog post)


The scheme is intermediary between scheme 2 and 4.

cornucopia systemYellow-green (dominant colour) : the pears, green grapes and the background
Reds (secondary colour) : the apples and the basket
Blue (accent) : the grapes in the foreground
Cornucopia represents the gifts of nature at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the harvest that will give you whatever you need. There are just three kinds of fruit in the basket, but they represent all the fruits available. It is the story of wholeness despite diversity.

Case study 3 : “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer

Mädcchen mit PerleThe scheme 1 with primary colours.

Yellow (dominant colour) = the dress, parts of the turban
Blue (secondary colour) = other parts of the turban
Red (accent) = the lips

What should be perceived as an opposition is broken up by the triadic system. The turban displays two of the colours of the scheme, not just one. The turban is a way to hide the hair of the girl, at a time in history when modesty and chastity were praised values. Hair was considered too sensual to be shown in public. So we have here this opposition between modesty (as a social necessity) and the red lips. Remember we have a triadic system here, so a balance is reached at some point. Isn’t it a way to show that there is no real opposition, and that the turban is also a way to seduce? An attire to enhance the beauty of the girl? Modesty is achieved on a superficial reading, but the triadic system adds balance and unity to the interpretation.

As we have just seen, the triadic colour scheme is a well balanced system that enables the photographer or the painter to achieve some contrast but maintaining a balance at the same time. Interpretation is endless and playing with it opens the door to a great horizon of stories and twists within a story.