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November 26, 2017

Color as Temperature

Color as Temperature

Temperature is one of the color's many characteristics. It describes the warmness or coolness of a hue or color relative to another hue. In nature, fire and ice are incredibly contrasting polar opposites.

Color temperature was more than familiar to artists before the 19th century.

However, in 1813, English artist Charles Hayter published this diagram in his book, Introduction to Perspective, Practical Geometry, Drawing and Painting, New and Perfect Explanation of the Mixture of Colors.

Hayter's Warm/Cool Diagram

The Temperature in Pigments

The warm and cool color diagram raised questions that caused multiple editions to be published.

Is every hue or color on the color wheel either warm or cool? Are some hues excluded as neither warm nor cool?

A warm or cool characteristic can be assigned to any hue or color when it is in the context of a color wheel. All hues or colors within the visible spectrum of light are present. In this context, red & orange are always warmer colors compared to blue & green.

We can split the color wheel into the polar opposites of nature's 'Fire and Ice.' Fire is close to orange, and ice is close to blue. Note that with all hues present in the color wheel, hues gradually get warmer as they approach orange (fire). Hues gradually get cooler as they are approaching blue (ice).

Color temperature in pigments or paint is always relative to its surroundings.

The confusion in Hayter's diagram comes when we take the hue or color off of the wheel and put it into another context. Color temperature is always relative to its surroundings.

Pink is cooler compared to red.

For example, when the temperature in our environment goes down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it feels really cold to us. However, 32 degrees Fahrenheit feels relatively warm after being in an environment of 11 degrees Fahrenheit for a day or two.

Warm vs. Cool

Color temperature in pigments or paint works the same way. It appears relatively warmer or cooler to the hues or colors around it. This optical illusion is even more apparent within a single hue family or color.

Pink is a great example. It is generally a warm color and is used during Valentine's Day in cards or on candy boxes. However, when pink is next to red, it becomes a relatively cool color hue or color compared to red, as shown.

If we zoom in to a single hue family on the color wheel, blue gets cooler as it approaches green and warmer as it approaches red. It is in context. This is what a painter refers to when they say, "a warm blue or a cool blue."

Don't confuse color temperature with color bias or undertones. That's an entirely different topic that will be addressed in another blog.


Temperature in Light

One last thing to address is the temperature of the light. The French Impressionists were obsessed with it.

They could paint the same scene in the morning and in the afternoon with two entirely different color schemes based on lighting effects and the time of day.

Sunlight Temperature

Lighting is essential in the perception of color. It transforms the vital visual information we receive from the object and will also affect your paint color. When comparing colors, use consistent lighting as you observe to get the same results.

Temperature is one of the color's many characteristics. It describes the warmness or coolness of a hue or color relative to another hue. In nature, fire and ice are incredibly contrasting polar opposites.