Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
Color Temperature Explained
In this article, we are going to explore the different aspects of color temperature, from the definition and concept of cool and warm colors, to the different roles that temperature can play in painting.
We’ll talk about the following:
- Color Temperature Is a Relative Concept
- The Power of Color Temperature in Painting
- Color Temperatures and Associated Emotions
- How Warm Colors Advance and Cool Colors Recede.
- Creating the Illusion of Space Using Temperature
- How Temperature Shifts Help Rendering Form
- How to Render Atmospheric Perspective Using Temperature Changes
- Bright vs. Dull: Definitions
- How Do You Dull a Color?
- What Colors Dull Each Other?
- How Temperature Biases of Colors Influence Mixing
- Yellows Have Different Temperatures
1. Color Temperature Is a Relative Concept
Warmth or coolness of a hue is not absolute, but it's strongly related to what colors are around it.
When you are determining comparative color temperatures, keep in mind where they would place on the color wheel, and their relative proximity to yellow or blue. The closer to yellow they fall, the warmer they are. The closer to blue, the cooler.
- When you paint red-violet next to red, then the red-violet appears cooler, because it contains some blue.
- However, when red-violet is placed next to blue, then the red-violet is perceived as a warm color.
In other words, when in doubt, you can determine if a color is warmer or cooler by asking yourself if it has more yellow or more blue in it.
2. The Power of Color Temperature in Painting
Understanding color temperature and learning how to control the temperature of the colors you mix can improve dramatically the quality of your paintings.
By controlling temperature, you’ll be able to:
- Create depth
- Create a sense of sunlight
- Define relationships between different objects and parts of the same object
- Establish a specific mood for your painting
- Convey dimensionality of the objects
"Learning how to control the subtleties of color temperature can do wonders for your paintings."
Cool Paintings and Warm Paintings
Each color, depending on its temperature, can be associated with a mood. You can learn to manipulate temperature and trigger certain emotions associated with your painting in a way that allows you to infuse your artwork with a very specific feeling or perception.
Warm colors are generally considered exciting and energizing, but also homely and earthy. A painting that is predominantly warm shines with glow and radiance.
Cool paintings can be more calming, soothing, and meditative. At the same time, a cool color scheme can convey a sense of coolness and stillness. In some cases, cool colors can be associated with a sad feeling.
3. Color Temperatures and Associated Emotions
|Cool Temperature||Warm Temperature|
4. How Warm Colors Advance and Cool Colors Recede
In painting, we are facing the tough challenge of trying to represent a 3D scene on a 2D surface. For a successful representation of depth in your painting, consider that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. This is a very important understanding when you are painting distance.
As Kim Casebeer told me during her oil painting workshop, “Yellow falls out first.” This means that everything painted in yellow or very warm colors will tend to come forward in your painting.
The scientific explanation for this is that the wavelength of warm colors are warm and are seen sooner by our eyes, while cool colors have shorter wavelengths and are seen later.
5. Creating the Illusion of Space Using Temperature
As you paint, you are trying to create the illusion of a 3D space on a 2D surface. Create an immediate appearance of distance and depth by using color temperature to your advantage. Include warmer colors in the foreground and cooler colors in the background.
If you paint the background warm, it will compete with the foreground and fight to come forward, pushing back any cooler objects in front of it.
Sometimes things at the horizon are really yellow, and it’s tricky to make a decision on how to render them in a way that they do fall back and look far away. Usually, making them lighter and duller than the foreground solves the problem.
6. How Temperature Shifts Help Rendering Form
Warm colors appear to expand while cool colors appear to contract, changing the way our brain perceives sizes.
If you know your drawing is correct but the proportions seem off, try tweaking the color temperatures.
Since warm colors are perceived as expanding, to make an area look bigger, try warming up its color. The same way, you can try to cool down what seems too big, and see if that solves the proportion issue.
7. How to Render Atmospheric Perspective Using Temperature Changes
In general, as objects are more distant from us, the atmospheric perspective influences their color. Objects in the distance become:
- Lighter in value
Apply these three rules to your distant objects, and even yellows at the horizon will read right to the viewer, because even being yellow, they’ll be a cooler, duller, and lighter yellow than closer objects.
Many painters push those temperature shifts beyond what is visible with the naked eye, to really make visually clear the differences in foreground, mid-ground, and background.
Here is where you can learn more about rendering atmospheric perspective.
8. Bright vs. Dull: Definitions
- Bright or saturated colors have strong chroma, which means they are pure from any presence of gray, white, or other dulling elements.
- Dull colors have low chroma, they are less intense and less pure.
For example, lemon yellow has a high chroma, while a banana yellow has lower chroma.
How to Mix a Bright or Dull Color
If you want to mix a bright color, use hues that are close to each other on the color wheel. The further apart the hues (on the color wheel) the duller their mixture will be.
- To mix a bright green, use a warm blue, like cobalt, cerulean, manganese, or phthalo and a yellow with a bias towards green, like lemon yellow.
- If you want to mix a dull green, use a cool blue, like ultramarine, that has some red in it, and a yellow with a bias farther from green, like a cad yellow deep.
Note: Color has three dimensions, hue, value, and chroma. Learning to recognize and control all three should be the goal of any painter.
The closest two colors are on the color wheel, the brighter their mixture will be.
Conversely, the further apart two colors are on the color wheel, the duller their mixture will be.
— Jane Jones, Artist
9. How Do You Dull a Color?
The rule of thumb to dull a color is to add a bit of its complementary color. To know which colors are complementary, look at the color wheel: They are opposite to each other.
Below is a table listing for each color the complementary that dulls it.
Note: Some colors are particularly opaque and strong, and just a little bit added can change your color mix drastically. Always start by adding a tiny amount of the complementary, mixing, and evaluating if you need to add more.
10. What Colors Dull Each Other When Mixed Together?
|Hue From Color Wheel||Its Complementary Color|
11. How Temperature Biases of Colors Influence Mixing
When mixing colors, keep in mind their temperature biases, meaning their relative proximity to yellow or blue on the color wheel.
For example, to alter a green with a red, depending on how you want to change the temperature, you'll use a different red. Let's compare the use of Red, Red-Orange, and Red-Violet to alter a green.
- Red-Orange has yellow in it and it's a warm yellow. Adding this to a green will keep it warmer.
- Pure Red has a neutral warmth, and would basically cause no major change to the warmth of the green.
- Red-Violet has blue in it, so when added to a green it will make it cooler.
More about color bias in this article about mixing neutral colors from bright ones.
Example of Temperature Change When Dulling Green
|Color added to green||Temperature Change of the Resulting Green|
No much change
12. Yellows Have Different Temperatures
Yellow is the warmest color, but not all yellows have the same temperature. Each yellow presents a bias towards blue or towards red. Being able to recognize those bias will give you better control of your color mixing.
|Type of yellow||Temperature bias|
it's the coolest, leaning towards green.
Cadmium Yellow Light
Closest to pure yellow
Cadmium Yellow Deep
It's warmer, leaning towards orange.
Understanding Color Temperature Will Impact Your Paintings
Understanding color temperature and learning how to control it while mixing colors is not easy.
It takes lots of practice and many mistakes, but once mastered it can make a huge difference in the painting results, adding a professional and knowledgeable look to your work.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I am learning the seven contrasts of color. What is your opinion about the main difference in contrast of temperature? Should it be warm vs. cool hue, or bright vs. dull or light vs dark? Thanks in advance.
Answer: Those that you mentioned are all great ways to create contrast. Depending on the subject matter and on the feel you are trying to achieve, you can use each and all of them.
When possible, I like to include the most variety in effects, which keeps the painting interesting.
-warm vs. cool hue
-bright vs. dull
-light vs. dark
All three are great ways to create variety and visual interest in the painting, and they can be used on the same piece.
I usually try to create the highest contrast right at the focal point; like the darkest dark near the lightest light. Also, I like to have a bright spot at the focal point, when it works.
I also learned that to have a lot of bright colors in a painting (which I love), you need to use dull (or boring) colors next to them, to help them pop without a fight.
One more thing I learned is that all of these contrasting colors work better when used to unify bigger shapes. For example, creating cool/warm contrast between a big cool shadow shape and a warm sunny shape, but with color variation within each mass.
Question: What effects on color temperatures have on public spaces?
Answer: The response to color in public spaces is a very personal experience.
To me, it brings joy and smiles.
I'm thinking of the colorful homes of Burano, Italy, or the colored mosaic stairs in San Francisco or in some favelas in Brasil.
Color is an expression of vitality, creativity, and joy.
© 2016 Robie Benve
georges lesur on February 09, 2019:
il existe une différence entre les couleurs soustractives et additives!
Char Chaiya on October 19, 2018:
That probably is helpful. Have a nice day
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on February 05, 2018:
Hi Kathy, those are that you mentioned are all great ways to create contrast.
warm vs cool hue,
bright vs dull
light vs dark
Three great ways to create variety and visual interest in the painting.
Depending on the subject matter and on the feel you are trying to achieve, you can use each and all of them.
When possible, I like to include the most variety in effects, which keeps the painting interesting.
I usually try to create the highest contrast right at the focal point, like the darkest dark near the lightest light. Also I like to have a bright spot at the focal point, when it works.
I also learned that to have a lot of bright colors in a painting (which I love), you need to use dull (or boring) colors next to them to help them pop without a fight.
One more thing I learned is that all of these contrasts work better when used to unify bigger shapes. For example creating cool/warm contrast between a big cool shadow shape and a warm sunny shape, but with color variety within each mass.
I hope this answers your question.
Kathy Yu on February 02, 2018:
May I ask the main difference in contrast of temperature, should be warm vs cool hue or bright vs dull or light vs dark? I am learning to distinguish the 7 contrast of color... please advice... Thank you
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 03, 2016:
Hi John, you are absolutely right! Colors closer to blue are cooler than colors closer to yellow. In the paragraph you indicated I was describing color temperature relativity, referring to the fact that the same color may appears cool when near a warm hue, and may look warm if next to a cool color. In fact, I need to thank you for pointing out that the wording was confusing. I'll edit the sentence to make more clear. Thanks!
John on September 29, 2016:
"When red-violet is near red, then the red-violet is considered cool; however, when red-violet is near blue, then the red-violet is considered warm." - That's the opposite as far as I understand it, the lean to the blue side should be cooler, for example as the distance to yellow is actually longer than going to the red side.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 16, 2016:
Hi Paintdrips, I know exactly what you mean by having a yellow sky look like there is no background. I love colorful paintings and more than once I have made the sky yellow, and had to deal with that problem. Thanks a lot for your feedback! :)
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 16, 2016:
Great explanations. I did a painting once in watercolor where I used yellow in the sky and the whole painting came forward. It seemed like there was no background, all foreground. Interesting how that happens.