Color Temperature for Artists

Updated on December 26, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

Learning how to control the subtleties of color temperature can do wonders for your paintings.
Learning how to control the subtleties of color temperature can do wonders for your paintings. | Source

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

Cool Temperature
Warm Temperature
Tranquilize
Exciting
Meditative
Cozy
Soothing
Earthy
Calming
Energizing
Quieter
Dramatic
Cooler
Fiery
Cold
Warmth
Sadness
Comfort

What is Color Temperature?

Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.

Let’s look at the colors on the wheel.

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.

When in doubt, you can determine if a color is warm or cool by asking yourself if it has more yellow or more blue in it.

Color Wheel

Color Wheel
Color Wheel | Source

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 warmest.

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.

For example:

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.


When you paint red-violet next to red, then the red-violet appears cooler, because it contains some blue.
When you paint red-violet next to red, then the red-violet appears cooler, because it contains some blue. | Source

Temperature is the relative warmth or coolness of a color.

When red-violet is placed next to blue, then the red-violet is perceived as a warm color.
When red-violet is placed next to blue, then the red-violet is perceived as a warm color. | Source

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.

Atmospheric Perspective

In general, as objects are more distant from us, the atmospheric perspective influences their color. Objects in the distance become:

  • Cooler
  • Duller
  • 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

Source

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
Yellow
Violet
Yellow-Green
Red-Violet
Green
Red
Blue-Green
Red-Orange
Blue
Orange
Blue-Violet
Yellow-Orange
Violet
Yellow
Red-Violet
Yellow-Green
Red
Green
Red-Orange
Blue-Green
Orange
Blue
Yellow-Orange
Blue-Violet
The rule of thumb to dull a color is to add a bit of its complementary color.

In Conclusion

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.

Happy painting!

Video about Color Temperature for Beginners

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    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 4 months ago from Ohio

      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.

      :)

    • profile image

      Kathy Yu 4 months ago

      Hi Robie,

      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 profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 20 months ago from Ohio

      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!

    • profile image

      John 21 months ago

      "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 profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 21 months ago from Ohio

      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! :)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 21 months ago from Fresno CA

      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.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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