Reader Request: Adding a Third Color

color triad

Reader Jill had this question:

I would love some advice on how to add a third color to an outfit. I just bought a turquoise and brown suit, and I love the colors together. But the jacket needs a cami or top under it, and I don’t know what color to add … and I’m thinking I would carry that color to shoes?

Great question, and one with MANY answers! Let’s start with the scientific one.

Consult a color wheel

I’ll be straight with you: The chances of me, myself, doing this approach zero. Color wheels make me itchy, just like music theory makes me itchy: I’d rather make choices with my gut than be constrained by rules about how to make artistic decisions the “right” way. HOWEVER! Not everyone is wired that way and I know that clear systems with comprehensible rules are absolutely invaluable to many. So, if you’re looking to add a third color to your outfit, you can definitely work with the color wheel. The graphic above is from this post about color schemes that does a spectacular job of explaining why some work and others don’t. This one will help if you’re dealing with neutrals, since brown and gray are shades and tones.

Add a tone, tint, or shade of one of your colors

Instead of bringing an entirely new color into the mix, consider utilizing a tone, tint, or shade of the two you’ve already selected. Tints result from adding white, tones result from adding gray, and hues result from adding black. So if we think about Jill’s example, she could add a lighter tint of turquoise, a deeper hue of brown, or a more muted tone of turquoise and the colors would be harmonious. This can get tricky because all turquoises aren’t the same and you need to watch your undertones, but it’s fun to tinker with.

Look to existing patterns or prints for guidance

The best color cheat in the world, if you ask me. Find a print, pattern, or graphic that includes your first two colors, and pick a third from within the design. A person who gets paid to group colors has just made your decision for you. If you’re doing an outfit of solids, adding the printed or patterned item can serve as a bridge, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Poke around online color resources

This is a great way to get color-grouping inspiration overall, but can also help out if you’re in a pinch looking for a third color to complete an outfit. Color blogs like Design Seeds and Colour Lovers are great resources, but I also love poking around Pinterest. I’ve got a color board, and Imogen has an amazing one, too. For general help you can search for “color schemes” or the two colors you’ve already selected – here are results for turquoise and brown. Another great Imogen-created resource? Her Polyvore sets. Even the ones that aren’t directly related to color theory or color groupings are inspirational.

The one tactic I’d suggest avoiding? Making white or cream your fallback third color. Yes, they’re neutral, but they don’t always look harmonious in color triads. White can be jarring, and cream doesn’t often add anything to color groupings. If possible, do a tone, tint, or shade instead.

Got any other suggestions for adding a third color to your outfits? Link to resources if you’ve got them!

Originally posted 2015-07-14 06:12:06.

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7 Responses to “Reader Request: Adding a Third Color”

  1. Kristy Johnston

    You can also do the not quite opposite color. Assume brown to be neutral. Your main color is turquoise (we’ll assume turquoise blue). It’s opposite is orange. The Not Quite Opposite is either color to the side of orange. Orangey Yellows or Orangey Reds. With a brown neutral you might be able go with a Yellowy Tan or a warmer (redder) Tan, also.

  2. Jennifer

    I love the academichic’s series on color pairings. They did whole weeks on triads, complementary color combos, split complementaries, etc. I have even printed some of their combos out and posted by my closet. They haven’t posted in a few years, but I think you can still find the blog through a google search.

    Also, aqua/turquoise is my favorite color. I’ve found it looks good with many pinks, oranges/coral/peaches, and khaki or olive green.

  3. Stephanie

    Do you have any suggestions for adding a third color when your two existing “colors” are black and white? I find myself drawn to black & white patterned dresses and skirts, but then I struggle to pair them with anything but black accessories.

    • Sally McGraw

      Hi Stephanie! My preference with black and white is to add a cool bright color like red, turquoise, hot pink, citron, or cobalt to the mix. You can also create a neutral mix by adding another neutral, though with high-contrast black and white, heather/dark gray is going to look better than most other neutrals. I’d generally say the main color families to avoid are pastels and jewel tones, but there are some cute outfits on Pinterest that argue otherwise!

      • Stephanie

        OK – that’s a really helpful place to start! Thanks Sally!

  4. Amy

    Sorry, I just have to chime in on this one. As an art teacher, I have to tell you that you have quite a few terms incorrectly defined here. You are correct in saying a tint is adding white to a color, but a hue is not adding black…that is a shade. Hue is pure color. Tone is a hue plus a grey. And grey and brown are not shades and tones, they are neutrals. Hope this helps!