Color Basics: Color Temperature in Painting

Color temperature 
I thought we might take a look at the subject of color temperature in this post. Color temperature can be a confusing term as it is used to describe slightly different concepts. For example, color temperature can describe the overall color range in a composition, can compare the relationship between two colors, or describe the difference between two similar hues. Color temperature can be used for emotional effect, or set up the lighting of environment of a scene.

Today, we will look at the different ways color temperature is defined and applied to painting.

Warm and Cool Colors 

In the broadest sense, color temperature describes the degree of warmth visually found in a color. Here, colors can fall into one of two groups, warm or cool colors.  A warm color is one that gives the viewer a sense of warmth, energy, or heat, such as the colors of the sun. A cool color is a color that gives a sense of coolness, cold, or stillness, such as the colors of the ocean.

The image to the right shows the primaries and their complements, take a look to decide which one of each pair is the warm or cool color.

Temperature within a Color

Color temperature is not always used to describe the relationship between different colors as it is sometimes applied to the difference between two variants of the same color. Looking at the two versions of green on the right, we can see one appears cooler than the other. 


The same is true looking at two versions of orange. We can see that one orange appears warmer than the other.

This is true of any comparison between two similar colors. Besides value or saturation differences we will find temperature differences as well. Below, I have set up a few diagrams comparing color temperature using the primary colors.

The swatches in the top bar are all one primary color. The swatches in the bottom bar shift in color temperature, starting with the primary color on the left. 


Red

Notice the temperature shift on the bottom bar. The swatch on the far right is much cooler than the original red.

Yellow

Adding small amounts of blue changes this yellow from a warm yellow into a cool yellow on its way to green.


Blue

The shift in this example is more subtle. The final color on the bottom right is still very cool but appears slightly warmer than the original blue.



Temperature of a Scene

Here is an example of how color temperature plays a role in setting up a scene. In this landscape painting, I wanted to paint a foggy day. To do this I chose a color scheme that is predominately cool. 

Besides the cool blues of the sky and water giving the painting a cold cloudy feel, the mountains are painted in cool colors as well. 

The colors of the mountains may look warm in comparison to the water but when we isolate them against white these colors appear cooler. This demonstrates how color impacts other colors. When a cool color is placed next to a color that is even cooler in temperature the result is the first color appears warmer.

Light and Shadow

There is an interesting temperature relationship between light and shadow. The color temperature of the shadow will be the opposite of the color temperature of the light.

If we have a warm light source then the shadows will appear relatively cooler. If the light source is a cool one then the colors found in the shadows will appear warmer.

This warm/cool relationship of light and shadow is subtle. Think of it as warmer and cooler as compared to each other as there may not be a big contrast between warm and cool. To the right is an example of the light and shadow temperature relationship. I have separated the basic colors of the light side of the figure, in the swatches on top row, and the shadow side, those on the bottom, just below the painting. We can see that the light side leans towards the cooler side ranging from cool pinks to violets. The shadow side is composed of warmer browns.

Again, we can see the impact of colors as they are placed in different environments. The browns of the shadow appear much warmer than the violets of the light side, but when we isolate those same browns against a white field they lose much of that warmth they have in the painting. These colors can even feel cool when isolated.