The power of three


Dear Artist,

Today, in this studio, I’m reminding myself of the power of three. Apart from foreground, middle-ground and background, there are three trees, three color-grounds, three motifs. Four has a tendency to be static, two suggests coupling or perhaps confrontation, while one represents loneliness and is not generally enough. Three carries with it the possibility of psychological rightness.


“Bateaux Pointers”
oil on wood, 1916​
21.5 x 26.8 cm
by Tom Thomson (1877-1917)

The philosopher Pythagoras thought three was the perfect number, expressive of beginning, middle and end. The idea of Trinity is central to many religions. The Hindu Trimurti is made up of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Siva (Destroyer). The ancient world was ruled by Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Three-forked lightning, the trident and a three-headed dog figure with these characters. The Fates are three, the Furies three, the Graces three, the Harpies three, the Muses were three times three. In Greek mythology a threatening and critical Pythoness sat on a three-legged stool called a tripod.

Man is traditionally threefold (body, soul and spirit), as is our world (earth, sea and air). Historic enemies of man have been the world, the flesh and the devil. Today’s realistic enemies seem to be fear, ignorance and hatred. The Christian graces are Faith, Hope and Charity. The kingdoms of Nature are animal, vegetable and mineral. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue.


“Little Falls”
oil on canvas, 1913
22 5/8 x 28 3/4 in (57.5 x 73 cm)
by Tom Thomson​

I’ve noticed that my paintings are good, bad and indifferent. With all this threeness one might think the idea is valuable. It is. Threeness rings an inner bell in the heart, mind and soul. Our inner-child loves to hear of it. There were three blind mice, three bags full, three men in a tub, three little maids from school and fiddlers three. The “three little words” are “I love you.” In the studio, three reminds us to look three times, think twice, and paint once. And when the imaginary Pythoness over there on her three-legged stool sticks out her three-pronged tongue at your work, you must say: “Out,” “out” and “out.”



“The West Wind”
oil on canvas, 1917
120.7 × 137.2 cm (47.5 × 54.0 in)
by Tom Thomson​

Best regards,


PS: “Say Mark — you know what I want? Three trees. Black spruce, rough, cold looking trees, you know what I mean? Three trees against a cold green gray northern sky — where can I get them at once?” (Tom Thomson was speaking to his friend Mark Robinson in 1916)

Esoterica: The popularity of threeness is based on the perceived sense of completeness. “Three essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.” (Joseph Addison) “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.” (John Ruskin)

This letter was originally published as “The power of three” on November 25, 2002.


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'Ready, Willing and Able by Lesley White, British Columbia, Canada

Ready, Willing and Able

oil painting, 15 x 30 inches
by Lesley White, British Columbia, Canada


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