Over the last year, you’ve probably had your body temperature taken more than once. Temperature checks have become standard practice during COVID. I can’t sit in my dentist’s chair for my regular cleanings without first passing a temperature check. My husband’s temperature is taken every time he visits his retinologist. Of course, these days, it’s easy. Just aim and shoot! Non-contact infrared scanners are simple, inexpensive devices, and they are helping to keep us all safe during the pandemic.
While proper body temperature is important to our health, temperature of another sort is important to the health of our art. I’m talking, of course, about color temperature, and I’ll be talking here, too, about light temperature. What I’ve learned has surprised me. Maybe you’ll be surprised too.
Let’s begin with what we know, or, at least, with what we think we know. Colors can be warm or cool, right? Actually, the answer is “no”. The colors of our paints have no real temperature. We merely perceive them as being warm or cool. Our human-engineered perceptions seem quite logical to us.
- Cool colors — primarily blues and greens — are the colors we see in lakes, rivers, grasses, snow, and ice. These are cool, refreshing images.
- Warm colors — reds, yellows, oranges — remind us of things which relate to fire, flames, brilliant evening sunsets.
For what it’s worth, this psychological perception of colort is in itself inaccurate, but that’s neither here nor there, and by the way, I’m drawing this information from Dan Scott’s online information about color theory. You can read more at his site:
The important thing we have to learn is that color temperature is relative. We can’t make hard and fast rules that green is always cool, or orange is always warm, because any color can appear to have a wide range of temperatures depending upon colors placed next to it.
What this means is that while we can make notes about “warm and cool” primaries, these are actually somewhat subjective measurements. A color may look “warm” in one place yet appear much “cooler” in another, all depending on surrounding colors.
To understand temperature better, we need to consider the source — the light source. While individual colors are not warm and cool, light actually does have a temperature. If you’ve ever bought light bulbs, you’re probably quite aware of the noticeable difference between low-temperature and higher-temperature lighting.
Take a look at this helpful chart — which, once again, may surprise you a bit.
Light/color temperature is measured in units called Kelvins. It begins at 0 and goes higher and higher. Now, please note — the low end of the scale shows reds and oranges, and yellows. These are what we refer to as warm colors, yet in scientific reality they are actually cooler. The upper range shows blue and blue-greens, which we traditionally associate with coolness, but these are actually the highest and hottest temperatures on the scale.
What does this mean to us as artists? It means we need to be aware of the light temperature each time we paint. We’re probably more apt to think about this if we’re painting en plein air, but even if we’re working from a reference photo — or even from our own imagination — we have to have an understanding of light temperature.
We can’t think in terms of actual heat, though, and here’s why. As shown above, the higher the light temperature, the cooler it appears. Conversely, the lower the light temperature, the warmer it looks.
So, while a clear blue sky has actual light temperature of 10,000 or more on the Kelvin scale, we see it as the coolest light of all. Everything is turned around from its reality, so is it any wonder that I’m very confused?
In terms of Kelvins, we proceed downward from clear skies to cloudy skies, to mid-day skies, to moonlight. We continue downward to early morning and twilight, sunrise and sunset, right on down to the very low-Kelvin output of a candle flame.
Yet as we move down, we’re moving not from hot to cold (or warm to cool) but precisely the opposite. As the Kelvin measurement decreases the light temperature grows warmer.
- Clear skies
- Cloudy skies
- Mid-day skies
- Dawn and twilight
- Sunrise and sunset
If you’re like me, you might need a minute or two to wrap your head around all of this. Or, maybe it’s just me. Maybe you knew all of this all along. I didn’t.
Art is all about creating illusions, and here we’re attempting to create illusions of light. To do this, we need to see the light in relation to everything else around it. To show the warmth of a sunset, our light source should be warm. Anything touched by the light will appear warm. Shadows will be cooler.
If we’re painting a nocturne with a beautiful moon as our light source, shadows should be slightly warmer so that we see the coolness of the light. It all depends, of course, on where the light is falling. Objects in the light will be cooler; objects in shadow will be warmer.
I’m going to leave this discussion right here so that I can start sorting through it and fully grasping these principles. Maybe this is all common knowledge to most of you. It’s new to me, at least, new in its depth and dimension. I’ve known about “warm and cool” principles in painting, but I’ve never quite understood them. I hope this will add to my ability to use colors more effectively.
There is much, much more on the topic, and if you browse through various art instruction sites and photography sights, you’ll find many discussions about color temperature and light temperature. For me, the learning process will require a few more “quick studies” where I can play with different combinations of lights and shadows.
I hope this information has been useful in some way, and if you see me making obvious mistakes with warm and cool colors as I practice painting, please don’t hesitate to point it out!