When I was a beginner, I spent a lot of time doing warm and cool studies. I thought warm and cool was a thing, and it had to be understood.
But I really struggled with it. The studies I produced didn’t look very realistic. I had an incredibly difficult time judging whether colours I saw were warm or cool, particularly very low chroma ones – i.e. very close to grey.
In fact, when it comes down to it, I don’t think the concept of warm and cool helped me at all.
A purple is warm compared to a blue, but cool compared to an orange. Is a yellow-green warm, or is it cool? And even if you knew, how would that help you paint?
Well, it wouldn’t.
The problem, to me, is that the concept of colour temperature is just too vague to be truly useful. Certainly, when there’s a more reliable and effective alternative, I can’t see a good reason to persist with the concept of warm and cool – especially when it’s so troubling for so many people.
Where it comes from
But I do think the concept of colour temperature does have some basis in what we perceive. In an interior, if you have indirect (north) light, the light will have a slightly blue hue, because it’s reflected off the sky.
In comparison, the ambient light in the room will be reflected off many different surfaces – wood, fabrics, many of which will have a hue more on the red/yellow/orange side of the hue wheel. Warm, if you like.
So, perceptually speaking, shadow colours will quite often appear warmer than the blue-hued lights.
But go outside, and if there’s sunlight the situation is reversed. Which is why you often see purple-blue shadows in paintings influenced by the impressionists. The shadows do appear cooler compared to the warm light of the sun. Although actually, they’re not blue. Don’t get me started.
In fact, I don’t see the need to talk about colour temperature at all. Because temperature is just a much less exact way to describe hue.
Hue, that’s the alternative.
Think of it like this. If I have some warm reflected light coming into the shadow of a blue object, that shadow will likely appear warmer.
But purple is warmer than blue. So is green. So which direction should I be travelling around the hue wheel to get that colour right?
Saying the shadow is warmer is just too vague to be useful to anyone, particularly to someone who’s learning and find colour confusing enough as it is.
But if you can tell me the direction around the hue wheel that the hue is shifting – towards red or towards yellow, well then, I have something I can go on.
In fact, I tackled that very problem in a live webinar last night and here’s the spoiler: Orange reflected light in the shadow side of a blue object created a magenta.
I can get even more specific if you like. It was 5RP.
And actually, it makes sense, because as someone pointed out in the webinar, magenta is about mid way between blue and orange – at east, it is on the Munsell hue wheel.
I chose warm and cool as a topic for a webinar because when I asked my regular webinar attendees what they struggled with most in regard to colour, what they’d most like to see a webinar on, the most common answer was warm and cool.
People are honestly confused by the concept and I’m not a bit surprised.
So in this webinar, I’m demonstrating that thinking differently about colour – thinking about hue instead of temperature – can actually make painting the right colours a little easier.
And we all need a bit of that, right? Here’s the webinar:
Best wishes, and thanks for reading (and watching),
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