Color Temperature for Artists
What is Color Temperature?
Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.
Let’s take a look at the colors on the wheel below.
Yellow or any color with yellow as a predominant component is considered warm.
Any blue or color predominantly blue is considered cool.
Red looks like it’s in the middle of the temperature scale, and its temperature is relative to the colors next to it. It’s cooler than yellow, but warmer than blue.
Color Temperature Relativity
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 colors closest to yellow on the color wheel are warmer.
That said, it's important to remember that warmth or coolness of a hue is not absolute, but it's strongly related to what colors are around it.
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.
The Power Of Color Temperature
For beginner painters, understanding color temperature and learning how to control the temperature of the colors you mix can improve dramatically the quality of the paintings.
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
"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.
Color Temperatures and Associated Emotions
Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.
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 us 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.
If you paint the background yellow 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.
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.
Hues from the Color Wheel
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 drastically your color mix. Always start by adding a tiny amount of the complementary, mixing, and evaluating if you need to add more.
Colors that Mixed together will Dull Each Other
Hue from Color Wheel
Its Complementary Color
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.
Video about Color Temperature for Beginners
Questions & Answers
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.
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.