Painting Tips and Tricks: The 3 COLOR RULE makes Painting Easy! YEAH!

Painting Tips and Tricks: The 3 COLOR RULE makes Painting Easy! YEAH!


Oh no! My stark white canvas is scary.
How do I get rid of the white?
How do I apply color?
Where do I start? EEK!

These are fears I struggled with when I first started painting and a fears I see so many of my students struggle with now. Understanding the 3 Color Rule and some basic blending techniques will help relax your mind.

First of all, it always helps to create a composition before you even pull out your canvas. See my blog on Creating an Original Composition to help you with that step.

But for this blog, let’s say we have a basic composition. The composition we will use here is the “The Old West Desert Cactus.” You can find this and many other paintings on my Gallery Page

We’re looking at the blank white canvas. How do we know where to start? First things first…

cactus color palette, 3 color rulePreparation: Set up your Palette and get a large flat synthetic brush. I used a 2 inch Flat Taklon Brush.

Paint Needed: I’m using Student Paints made by Dick Blick Art Materials. They are great for practice painting.

Black – just choose one.. Mars, Ivory etc.. It doesn’t make a difference. Chose the black that you happen to have.

Bright Red – Yours might have Crimson or Rose. You want a good red color with very little orange in it. If you’re not sure, mix a tiny amount of it with white and see if you get a true pink color. If it has an orange tint to it, see if you have a color that’s more reddish in color. If not, just know your sky will be more on the orange side. Either way, it’s not a problem. Think of this as a study.

Chrome Yellow-Yours might be cadmium yellow. Basically, you want a bright yellow.
If you look at my palette here, I’ve mixed a very small amount of black with my red to create that big wad of color in the top left. This is the base color that I work off of for all my colors.

Orange-Mix Your Own-Be Brave!-Mix some of the red with the yellow and create an orange you find appealing. This is great practice. Mixing your own colors also helps in making sure your colors will look good together.


There are various ways of doing this. However, most of them include the same principle of layering and blending paint.

3 color ruleLet’s say, for our purposes, we decide to APPLY A GRADIENT OF COLOR TO THE CANVAS.

What does this mean, you ask? In our case, we will apply a thin layer of blended paint to the entire canvas from dark to light. Using the example of this “The Old West Desert Cactus” painting, we can see that the lightest base color of the painting is yellow (the brightest part of the sun) and the darkest part of the sky is at the top (which makes the eye travel to the bright part of the painting… Follow the light lol).

Looking at the color palette, notice that the big blob of paint on the top left is the middle range of colors used in the painting. Around this mid-range color called the MID-TONE are the lighter and darker colors from which we create the SHADOWS and HIGHLIGHTS.

3 color ruleThink of color as a basic 3 Color Rule:

Mid-tones: This is the actual or true color. For example, we want to paint the house apple green as the apple green in the middle of the picuture, the actual or true color of the house is apple green.
Highlights: This is the color we see where the light strikes the most. So in our house paint example, maybe the light makes our apple green look more like the spring green.
Shadows: This is the color we see where the light is unable to strike. So, in our house paint example, maybe the absence of light makes areas of our house look more like the alpine green.
Simple Enough!

Now back to our painting.

None of us have trouble understanding dark to light or light to dark. But, the problem issue that commonly arises with my students come into play when I see paintings with stripes. In the example of our cactus painting, I might see a stripe of dark red, then orange and then yellow.

But, unless we are creating a flag, we really don’t want to see distinctive stripes.

How do we get a gradient of color and not a stripe effect when we paint a background? The answer: BLEND!

3 color ruleOne way we can blend colors into each other to create an interesting sky full of motion is to blend so you don’t know where one color stops and another color starts. Try to double loading your brush and apply the colors with a figure 8 motion. You can see what this looks like in this picture. Double loading is simply picking up one color on the corner of your brush and picking up another color on the other corner of the brush.

As you descend down the canvas, begin loading your brush with lighter colors until you finally have only yellow or yellow and white on your brush. (If the yellow is too transparent, add a touch of white to make it more opaque). You can see how I blended the lighter part of sky as I descended down the canvas.

I don’t have stripes but rather interesting formations of action in the sky.

The key to succeeding in this method is to keep moving and move quickly with loose, bold and free feeling strokes.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you stay in one spot too long continuously blending, you will blend your sky into one flat color. You will take out all of the movement and interest in your sky. Use dollops of paint and keep moving. You can’t keep moving if you don’t have enough paint on the brush.

Once, you start painting the canvas with just yellow, paint all the way down the canvas. Put the yellow paint where the mountains and land are going to be. If we use this yellow color all the way down the canvas, we not only get rid of the scary white, but we have a base coat of color that works well with the entire painting. Therefore, if we have areas of the mountains and land that don’t cover completely, the yellow base coat will show through and it will more than likely look like we did it on purpose.


Once you have the canvas covered with your first layer of paint, create your mountains and land by double loading your brush and painting each mountain with a single gliding stroke. Make your strokes deliberate. By double loading you will ensure the 3 color rule.

Angle is very important in your brush strokes as you apply this 3 color rule.

The flatter you lay the brush stroke the flatter the land (as in the land at the bottom of the painting). The more perpendicular your brush stroke the more steep your mountain sides will look. In this painting they look more like foothills because of the angle and steepness of the brush stroke. Practice on a scrap piece of paper. You’ll see what I mean.

Keep in mind, the further away you want mountains to look, the lighter the mountain will become. So, lay in your farthest mountains first with your lighter colors. As you paint down the canvas and the land gets closer to you, the color becomes darker. This concept also applies to the objects like the cactus. The cactus closer to you will be bigger and darker than those that are further away.

Notice: After painting in the mountains, I decided I didn’t want the dark cloud to the right and painted a second layer of clouds over the whole top of the canvas. It’s your world to create the kind of painting you want.


In this painting the cactus are very simple. Create your shape with the mid-tone and use the 3 Color Rule to add shadow and Highlights based on your light source.

I would love to see your painting. Please feel free to join our Maxie’s Palette Facebook Group and upload your painting. I’m always here to answer your questions as well. You can ask them here at the bottom of the blog or in Maxie’s Palette Facebook Group or the
I Paint Today’s Facebook Page
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If you would like to learn in person and happen to be in the Northwest Boston area. Join us for a Painting Party Class, a Workshop or a Painting Course. Check out our Calendar Page for dates and descriptions.

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