Color Temperature for Artists

Updated on April 28, 2019
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

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

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 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 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.

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.

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.

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
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 Relativity

The warmth or coolness of a hue is not absolute, but it's strongly related to what colors are around 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
  • 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.

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

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 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.


Illusion of Space

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.

Illusion of Form

Also, 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 temperature. Warm up the area that looks too small and cool down what seems too big.

Understanding color temperature and learning how to control the temperature of the colors you mix can improve dramatically the quality of your paintings.
Understanding color temperature and learning how to control the temperature of the colors you mix can improve dramatically the quality of your paintings. | Source

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.

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

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.

Bright vs. Dull Mixtures

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 phtalo 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.

To mix a bright green, use a blue and a yellow that are close to each other on the color wheel. To mix a duller green, use a cool blue, like ultramarine, and a deep yellow, both have some red in them.
To mix a bright green, use a blue and a yellow that are close to each other on the color wheel. To mix a duller green, use a cool blue, like ultramarine, and a deep yellow, both have some red in them. | Source

When Mixing Mind the Temperature Bias

When mixing colors keep in mind their temperature bias, 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.

Dulling Green

Color added to green
Resulting green
Red-Orange
Warmer
Red
No much change
Red-Violet
Cooler

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.

Yellows

Type of yellow
Temperature bias
Cadmium Lemon
it's the coolest, leaning towards green.
Cadmium Yellow Light
Closest to pure yellow
Cadmium Yellow Deep
It's warmer, leaning towards orange.

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

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.

  • What effects on color temperatures have on public spaces?

    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.

Comments

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    • profile image

      georges lesur 

      4 months ago

      il existe une différence entre les couleurs soustractives et additives!

    • profile image

      Char Chaiya 

      8 months ago

      That probably is helpful. Have a nice day

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      16 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 

      16 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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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