Temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a color. As artists, it’s important to learn about it because color temperature helps us create depth, mood, color harmony, and even movement.
In general, yellows, oranges, and reds are warm colors and blues and greens are cool. That sounds simple but color temperature is relative. A color that might appear warm next to one color, could appear cool next to a different color. Also, every color has a tendency towards either warm or cool. We say yellow is a warm color, but some yellows tend towards red (so you will see warmer tones in it) while others tend towards blue (which are cooler tones).
Neutral colors and earth tones, while typically appearing cooler because they are low intensity, still have differences in color temperature from one to the next.
Warm colors appear to advance, or come forward, while cool colors appear to recede or go back in space. This is because the wavelengths of warm colors are longer so your eyes see them sooner than the shorter wavelengths of cooler colors. Using warm colors in the foreground of a painting and cool colors in the background of a painting can help create the illusion of three dimension and distance. The illusion of advancing or receding helps create a sense of form in smaller subjects too, not just landscapes.
The more we start to see these nuances in color temperature the better we will be at mixing colors as well since to create brilliant color you should mix colors that lean towards the same temperature.
It’s important to aim for a temperature dominance in your paintings. Avoid equal amounts of cools and warm colors as it creates an unappealing result. It's fine to have both warm and cool colors in your artwork, but not in equal amounts. Choose whether the dominant temperature will be warm and cool and be sure you use more of those colors.
Seeing temperature in color takes practice. In my Understanding Colors class, I give this exercise to help students start to see and paint with color temperatures in mind. This exercise also helps to underscore how temperature can change the mood of a painting. Give this a go yourself to start your exploration of color temperature.
Sketch the same scene four times.
In the first version, paint it using only cool colors.
In the second version, paint it using only warm colors.
In the third, paint it roughly half cool colors and half warm colors.
In the fourth version, paint it with predominately one temperature and just a touch of the opposite temperature.
Which version do you like the most?
How do your color choices change the mood of the same subject? Study the differences in mood, sense of depth, interest, personal preference. You are on your way to understanding color temperature! Creating warm/cool contrasts also adds a wow factor at your focal point.
All the images in this post were done by my students.
I will be teaching Understanding Colors for the Watercolorist as an 8 Week Workshop at Cloud 9 Art School in Bothell on Wednesday mornings from January 8 - February 26, 2020. To register, visit https://charlenecollinsfreeman.com/workshops/
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