Thomas Moran and the Triad

Thomas Moran and the Triad

A primary problem in drawing and painting is solved in the division of space.  Over the centuries artists have solved this problem in their own way and therein lies the reason Art is such a tremendous and important part of the human experience.  The way the artist solves the problem gives us an insight into their thinking and the thinking of all mankind.

Threes come up often in the visual arts and Thomas Moran (1837-1926) solved the problem of division of space in an extraordinary way.  He used the triad of 3 color temperatures: cool, neutral, and warm.

In East Hampton, Long Island, 1897, Moran uses a color scheme of yellow, orange and green.   The green acts as the cool color, orange and yellow as the warm, and the umber and dark green in the shadows as the neutral.  Not by accident, the colors is related to yellow, which creates harmony in the painting.



In The Golden Hour, 1875, Moran uses an overall color scheme of yellow-orange, red, and purple.  The yellow, orange, red combination is the warm, the purple in the foreground mesa leading to the distant mesas is the cool, and the umber in the shadows of the mesas and trees acts as his neutral.  This time the harmony is achieved with colors related through red.  Moran has taken advantage of the “this against that” nature of painting.  When a dull purple is placed against fiery warms, its cooler temperature is brought out.


In Pueblo at Sunset (Laguna), 1901, the palette is almost entirely yellow and purple (complementary colors) but he stretches both to their limit.  Learn the rules and then bend them as far as you can.  The setting sun is ablaze with variations on yellow (warm), the corners of the sky are cooled in purple (cool) and the foreground is a neutral based on yellow, most likely a combination of yellow and purple (neutral).


Notice the placement of the triad in each painting: the foreground is usually the dark neutral, the middle-ground is the cool color, and the sky is the warm.  Dark, middle, light, another triad.  Of course he changed this scheme as needed.  It’s been said that improvisation is an important skill in music.  It’s true for painting as well.  Learn to use the triad and bend it to your will.