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Warm and Cool Colors: Beginner’s Guide

Warm and Cool Colors: Beginner’s Guide

Since Isaac Newton developed the color wheel in 1666, artists have used the tool throughout the centuries to understand different color relationships better.

Within a short period of time, knowledge about the color wheel grew, and artists began to understand how the warmth or coolness of color evoked different emotions.

From there, the idea of warm and cool colors became prominent and has lasted up to today.

warm and cool colors

How are Colors Warm or Cool

warm and cool color wheel

In art classes, a commonly asked question is, “how do I know if a color is warm or cool?” 

There is a solid general answer for this, but it will not be satisfying unless we ask a different question.

The question is, “why is color temperature so important for artists?”

The first reason is for mixing color.

Mixing warm with cool colors tends to combine all three primary colors, which leads to muddier shades.

So, on a practical note, it’s essential to know when a color is warmer or cooler for coloring mixing purposes.

More specifically, colors are warm or cool depending on their placement on the color wheel relative to one side or the other of their initial color.

For example, it becomes warmer as it moves towards red and cooler towards a blue shade starting from purple.

Red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors that anchor the color wheel on three sides.

Combining these three colors in separate pairs makes purple, green, and orange respectively, the three secondary colors.

Finally, the tertiary colors, made by mixing primary and secondary colors, make up the rest of the wheel.

In more absolute terms, the right side of the color wheel chart consists of warm colors: reds, yellows, and oranges.

The left side consists of cool colors: green, blue, and purple.

Warm colors tend to come out towards the eye, while cool paint colors tend to recede into the background. 

Explaining Color Temperature

  Color Name Hex Code RGB Value CMYK Value
Cool Green Phthalo Green #023729 2, 55, 41 96%, 0%, 25%, 78%
Warm Green Olive Green #808000 128, 128, 0 0%, 0%, 100%, 50%

Color temperature is the broad term for thinking of color in terms of warm and cool.

Any color can be warmer or cooler.

For example, you can have a cool green or a warm green, depending on how much yellow is used compared with how much blue is used.

Color temperature is used for many different purposes in painting, most prominently the lifting outward or inward of specific areas within the image.

This may have to do with their wavelengths, as warm colors have long wavelengths while cool colors have short ones. 

Psychologically, the color blue is associated with cooler shades, while yellow and red are associated with warmer colors (although, ironically, extreme heat also emits blue light).

These associations are nearly universal and thought to be because of our environment.

However, the feelings about colors are more relative across cultures.

This is because neutral colors don’t really exist. All colors have some association with temperature and emotion. 

Water and ice tend towards blues, while the sun and fire tend towards reds and yellow.

Greens tend to be medium temperature, like plants.

Warm and cool colors get their temperatures from the feelings associated with those colors in our environment.

When we touch blue things, they tend to be cool. When we touch things that are the color yellow or red, they tend to be warm.

Incorporating a balance of these hues and understanding where the associations come from will help you with your paintings.

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Color Temperature Psychology

color temperature psychology

The effective use of color temperature can evoke many different feelings in people. It is important to note that this can vary depending on culture and individual.

This is because the associations with one’s environment can differ depending on where and how one grew up.

However, we can engage in some generalities about European and North American cultures’ feelings towards color that have been used in Western art throughout the ages.

Warm colors tend to be more stimulating and subconsciously remind us of the warmth of a fire and the sun.

It can tell us that an object is illuminated and visible.

Therefore, they tend to be more welcoming colors, evoking hearth and home.

Often they are seen as more sensual colors, giving off the heat and radiance of the human body.

Animals, too, tend to be colored with warmer tones.

Cool colors such as cool blues and greens subconsciously remind us of calming, natural things like plants and water. They soothe us when we look at them because they remind us of peaceful spaces in our environment.

Because they recede into the background, the tops of mountains and the sky also blend into cool colors, evoking a grand sense of scale.

This also holds true of the ocean. 

Children tend to lean towards warmer colors for their favorite color, while adults tend to gravitate towards cool colors as we age. 

It is essential to understand what emotional effect color temperature will have on your viewers.

Art inherently involves emotion, so it’s essential to consider it.

You can’t simply avoid the fact that different uses of color temperature will tend to evoke certain feelings in your viewers.

Cool Paintings and Warm Paintings

Taking the emotions of cool and warm colors further, whole paintings can be painted with a cool or warm aesthetic in mind.

This would be where the dominant color scheme is one or the other and trigger more direct emotional associations as a whole work. 

Each warm color as a whole is an energetic, action-inducing color and can evoke feelings of the home with its earth colors.

Using these predominantly across a painting will tend to make it glow and radiate a kind of heat and energy. 

Cool paintings provide the opposite effect, evoking feelings of calm and meditation.

It can create a serene sense of stillness and a feeling of slowing down.

It can also be used to evoke more sad feelings.

Absolute vs. Relative Warm and Cool Colors

  Color Name Hex Code RGB Value CMYK Value
Cool Red Alizarin Crimson #770a2d 119, 10, 45 0%, 92%, 62%, 53%
Warm Red Cadmium Red #e30022 227, 0, 34 0%, 100%, 85%, 11%

One way of conceiving warm and cool colors is by their absolute values on the classic color wheel.

That’s what gives us the warm and cool split of the wheel.

However, a second meaningful way to understand color temperature is relative.

The balance of warm vs. cool color bias in a color is dependent on which color you begin with and hence is relative in this way of thinking.

There is a way to make it cooler or warmer for any particular color by mixing in more of the warm color or cool color.

For example, you can have a warm yellow and cool yellow depending on how much red (warmer) or blue (cooler) you mix in. 

Similarly, there are warmer and cooler reds and blues. Warm red mixes in more yellow, becoming more orange, while a cooler red mixes in more blue, becoming purplish.

Warm blue mixes in more red, becoming more violet, while a cooler blue mixes in yellow, becoming more like the color green. 

You can see how all this makes color temperature highly relative because it entirely depends on which color you begin with. 

This is also true for every secondary and tertiary color, but it is easiest to begin with the warm and cool versions of the primary colors to get a sense of how relative warmth and coolness works. 

Absolute Color Temperature Controversy

Some artists and color theorists think it’s best never to think of color temperature in absolute terms but always relative.

This is because, as we’ve just learned, every color can be cooler or warmer depending on its color bias.

So, for example, taking a yellow, putting more blue in it makes it blue-biased and cooler.

Alternatively, putting more red in it makes it more red-biased and warmer.

But if that’s true, then there’s no way to say which sections of the color chart are ‘cooler’ overall and which are ‘warmer.’

It ultimately depends on which color you begin with.

Mixing Cool and Warm Colors

mixing warm and cool colors

It is important to understand how to mix a color towards a cooler or warmer color bias when mixing paints.

You might want to look up a solid color mixing guide to know exactly which paint colors to use.

It is best to mix colors in the same color direction to make purer and brighter colors.

If you mix and warm with a cool color instead, you will tend towards muddier and greyer shades, which lessens the overall saturation of color and muddies up the painting.

Thus, if you want to make a blue cooler, use either yellow-biased blue paint or mix in a bit of yellow.

Avoid mixing it with reds or using red-biased blue paint. 

Remember, every color can be made cooler or warmer on a relative scale.

Therefore, it’s important not to mix in both a warmer and cooler direction simultaneously.

Of course, there may be times when you are looking for a brown or grey color, but it is a common mistake to mix all three primary colors and end up mudding one’s colors without meaning to. 

Is white a cold or warm color?

  Color Name Hex Code RGB Value CMYK Value
Neutral White Neutral White #FCFAF6 252, 250, 246 0%, 1%, 2%, 1%
Cool White Snow Drift #F8FBF8 248, 251, 248 1%, 0%, 1%, 2%
Warm White Floral White #FFFAED 255, 250, 237 0%, 2%, 7%, 0%

Many people are curious about the temperature of white and other colors that don’t appear directly on the color wheel.

One approach to white is thinking about it as generally neutral but can lean cooler or warmer based on how much red and yellow (warmer) compared with blue (cooler) there is in its color undertones.

Almost all whites are some kind of beige off-whites, and so they’ll have some other colors mixed within them. 

Picking up the subtle tints of color in white can be difficult for the untrained eye, but most whites do have a bias in one direction or another.

If it looks more yellow or pinkish, the white will read warmer.

Whites that are more blue or greenish will appear as more cool-toned whites. 

The Powers of Color Temperature in Art

color temperature in art

Color temperature plays a variety of roles in art. Learning to control it can be helpful for a wide variety of purposes:

  • It can add dimensionality and form to objects
  • Create a specific mood
  • Separate out and define relationships between objects
  • Create a sense of depth, especially for landscapes
  • Add dimensions of light and shadow to your painting

The Illusion of Space

The illusion of space is one of the most extraordinary powers color temperatures can offer your painting.

Cool shades tend to recede in the space of the painting, while warm shades tend to advance and come forward.

It is one of the fundamentals of excellent landscape painting.

For example, if there are mountains in the distance of a forest in the foreground, painting the mountains in much cooler colors will help them recede into the background.

Painting the forest with warmer colors will similarly bring it out further into the foreground.

If you apply color temperature well to your paintings, your sense of space should strengthen. 

The Illusion of Form 

Warm colors tend to expand a form, while cool colors tend to contract it.

So if your sketch seems correct in proportion, the problem is color temperature.

By manipulating the light and shadow of the figure using more warm or cool colors, the proportions can be modified. 

With careful observation of the figure or landscape you are painting, these differences can be noticed and used to one’s advantage, expanding areas with warm colors and contracting others with cool ones.

This is one of the areas where color theory and sketching are both needed to achieve the ultimate effect. 

Conclusion

Warm and cool colors are one of the most challenging yet rich areas of color theory.

There is no simple way to understand color temperature but rather a myriad of different subtleties and purposes. 

Masters at color relativity learn to use all the subtle differences of color temperature to their advantage, creating a lively mix of warm and cool hues to create the exact effect they are looking for.

It is important to remember the two different ways to think of color temperature, absolute and relative, and use them to your advantage when creating depth and form in your paintings.