"We see nothing truly until we understand it"~ John Constable


Intensity -
the brightness or dullness of color.




The World of Color



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“He who wishes to become a master of color must see, feel, and experience each individual color in its endless combinations with all other colors.” Johannes Itten, 1888-1967


What is meant by the word Temperature?
Temperature is an attribute of color or a characteristic of a pigment. In the context of color and painting, when artists refer to temperature, what they are referring to is the degree of warmth or coolness measured when one color stands in relationship to another color creating a measure of contrast. This perceived temperature is usually measured relative to something else or relative to the area around it.


In reference to color temperature, the general perception is that warm means moderately warm or has predominant tones of Red or Yellow and that cool means moderately cold, lacks warmth or has tones of blue. This is generally the popular belief but for the artist who works with a limited palette and relies on mixing pigments (paint), there is another very important factor to consider. One that may help them manage the colors in their paintings more efficiently and with greater effect.

For the sake of this article, and in an effort to make this concept easier to comprehend, temperature might be better understood and viewed if it is thought of in two ways that work hand in hand or in tandem.

FIRST - In terms of visually 'reading' colors relative to each other...

  • Relative to - Judging temperature in terms of 'seeing' or how we visually perceive a color relative to another through the contrast between the two. (one color temperature relative to the one sitting near to it.) For example:In the images below, the red hues appear different from each other, the ones on the left appear somewhat cooler than the ones on the right. Which one appears to lean closer to orange?

Relative to each other, the reds on the left, generally appear cooler than the red mailbox on the right. In this case we can visually judge the temperature difference based on the temperature contrast between them and relative to each other.

Note: Within each of the individual photographs there are also temperature contrasts or differences between the red elements. Can you see them?

Cooler relative to warmer


SECOND - In terms of mixing colors...

  • In terms of mixing pigments on the palette and understanding that certain pigments are characteristically warm, or cool or temperature neutral by their nature. For example: Ultramarine Blue PB29 is a warm blue pigment. Hansa Yellow Light PY3-10G is a cool yellow pigment.

Within each color family (hue) of pigments, there can be found different temperatures of pigments. This is based on the fact that color temperature is a characteristic of a pigment measured by the paint manufacturer against a temperature neutral gray. Some pigments by their very nature are warm. A perfect example of this is Ultramarine Blue PB29 - this is a warm blue pigment.

When learning to mix colors, it is very important for the artist to factor this information into the mixing process. This will create a more efficient method for managing color as the artist will be better able to adjust and control temperature while working to create dimension, contrast and interest within their paintings. This knowledge will result in many more successful mixing experiences.


Cool Blues

Look at the two examples of Blues featured here, can you recognize which one is the warmer of the two? If you guessed the one on the left you would be correct. But why do you think so?

Here are some things to consider when selecting your pigment based on temperature for mixing ...For the sake of this exercise, let us presume that the blue examples above are puddles of paint on the palette and you wish to paint two different objects. Now select the better of the two blues for the job because each pigment will perform differently and render different results.

Based on the spectrum of colors - answer the questions first and see the correct answers below.

  1. Which of the two Blues appears to 'lean' closer to green?
  2. Which one of the two Blues appears to 'lean' closer to Violet?

Answers: (1.= right, 2.= Left)

Why is Temperature important to Artists? 
To achieve a harmonious effect all factors under the elements of color should work together.   When all work together, instead of competing or fighting, the result is a Pleasing and Harmonious Composition that is uniquely balanced. Look at how the Old Dutch Master artist, Jan van Huysum worked with his palette. He balanced, controlled and adjusted the elements of color contrasts (temperature being one of them) to create the ultimate for drama, dimension and effect.


Jan van Huysum - Dutch Master

Flowers and fruits, 1st half 18th century, wood, 81 × 61 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Netherlands, Baroque Period.

gold blue reds

Do these colors appear to have a temperature relationship? Is there strong or reduced contrasts between them? Think about this for a moment and see if you can analyze how the artist may have used these different color families in the painting above and for what purpose he may have done so.



Warm and cool within every Hue...

Relative to pigment, we have established that within every Hue (color family) on the standard color wheel, the artist will find both warm and cool pigments used for mixing paint.

Different temperatures within one Hue
Cool Yellow
Neutral Yellow
Warm Yellow

However, generally speaking, artists will read color on the color wheel as simply having a warm side and a cool side and omit another very important factor. That factor is paying close attention to the temperature of the actual pigments they mix with. It is not possible for the artist to measure the temperature of a color simply by using the color wheel. The subject of temperature is much more complex than this and has been over simplified with such generalizations. For the artist who mixes, it is better understood and learned if the focus is placed on the actual pigments that are in the artist's paint box.

temp wheel
This example shows generalization of color temperature. It has not helped the art student who works with a limited palette of colors and who wishes to mix secondary and tertiary colors from pure pigments. This is too generalized a concept to apply for mixing.
This is not the best tool to learn about color mixing

The belief that the color wheel is divided in two with a cool and warm side is only one aspect of understanding the element of temperature contrast. A more important concept for the artist to focus on, is that the artist paints with pigments from both sides of the wheel and that within each individual hue there will be found pigments which each bear either cool, warm or temperature neutral characteristics that are a necessary factor when mixing.

warm red


To reinforce and explain this concept once again... Take a look at the examples above, they show two Reds, yet one Red appears warmer than the other. Which one do you think is the warmer of the two? If you guessed that the one on the right is warmer relative to the other you are correct. Why? One Red appears to lean a little closer to Orange, so based on simultaneous contrast (elements sitting side by side) we read it as warmer.

Again... based on simultaneous contrast (elements sitting side by side) which Red do you read as the warmer of the two?

Temperature - learning through observation...
What can you say about the greens in these two images below? Can you detect the differences in temperature contrast at a glance?  Look at the greens below. It is also important for the artist not to confuse color temperature with color intensity, though these two factors work closely together.

Observe the different greens in the photographs below, what deductions can you make about the contrasts between them?

Is the green color above the waterline different from the green color below it? How different? Why?

Is it temperature, intensity, value or all three of the above?

Is the green in the first photograph above generally different from the greens in the images below? How different and why?



What we know...

Based on observation alone, color temperature is relative to what it is sitting next to. When reading and adjusting colors in a painting, we have to compare it to other colors to see or read the differences or similarities in the color relationships and look to see how this affects the overall area of the painting.

cool greens warm greens

Which do you 'perceive' as the warmer of the two greens? Can you see how they relate to the photographs below?

Green frog Green frog
There are different greens in this photograph (left). The frog green has more yellow in it and appears warmer than the leaf, this is where 'relative to' comes into play and one can see the differences clearly. These two images show the same frog but the light has changed and so did the temperature relationship. This photograph shows the similarities between the greens. The frog and the cactus now appear to be almost the same hue, value, intensity, and as well the temperature contrast of green also appears the same. Yet, on closer observation we can see a very slight difference. Mother Nature adjusts color for camouflage.


Do the laws of physics and light come into play when we think of color temperature? Yes. Take a look at Mother Nature, does she place the cooler colors in shadow and are they darker than the warmer colors? Why? We must consider the effects of light on color.

The most important thing for the artist to remember is that when we paint we judge and make all color decisions based on the context of what we are painting, RELATIVE to something next to or around it, everything is about contrast. 

If the artist was painting an apple they would adjust all the elements of color to create dimension. They might adjust the highlight area to make it warmer; relative to and based on the perceived temperature of the medium value of the object AND the temperature of the lightsource. Everything we do with color is determined in the context of what we are doing, or where we put the color and what it will be placed next to. This is for either the reduction or increase of contrast.

Artists can use temperature to affect the mood of the painting...

The topic of color temperature was brought to our attention by the artist Charles Hayter from England, back in the 1800's he showed a color wheel and divided the colors into cold and warm colors.  However just like the color wheels we often see today they fail to give us the most important information we need to help us work with colors for mixing paint and painting. If we only looked at the color wheel, divided it in half, and said here is the cool side and here is a warm side, and these hues go together, this wouldn't tell the student artist too much about controlling the paint they work with. But that seems to be the general perception of color temperature and is too general and limiting when mixing paint. That rule of thought is limiting because it reduces the possibilities for finding solutions for adjusting color mixes quickly.

Rembrandt Vermeer

Rembrandt, "The Jewish Bride" 1665 & Vermeer, "The Kitchen Maid" 1656

In the painted examples shown above, the Old Master artist Rembrandt, used an overall warmer palette of analogous colors by choice to paint "The Jewish Bride". His subjects, displaying their affection for each other can also be interpreted as 'warm' affection. This sentiment is further enhanced by the harmonious warmth of his analogous palette. The warm browns, red oranges and gold are decidedly warmer overall. Yet if we look deeper into the painting, we can compare the relative temperature differences of each hue as they move from highlight areas and into the shadow areas.

If we compare the two paintings, could we say that the Rembrandt painting, "The Jewish Bride", relative to Vermeer's "Kitchen Maid" is warmer overall? Now let's take a look at the Vermeer painting on the right. Here the artist uses a near complementary pair in a very harmonious manner, in truth the color scheme is triadic, red, yellow and blue, however, he uses the contrast between the two (yellow and blue) not to create tension, but to emphasize the light source streaming in from the upper window. Here we can see a contrast of temperature between warmer light and cooler shadow colors. The woman's upper body bathed in warm light and the lower half of the painting moving into the cooler shadow. One decidedly cooler than the other, overall.
Let’s look at the blues - Haven't we always heard that Blues are cooler than Oranges? - but what we really need to understand is that within the blue family of colors there will also be warmer, cooler and neutral temperature blue pigments  - more helpful and useful information for the artist than simply saying, blue is a cool color! - What we really need to understand is how to adjust the color temperature for better temperature contrast which helps us create greater dimension and interest.

Start working with color to learn about them...

Which colors are believed to be warmer and why?
Generally, warmer colors can be those colors containing Red or Yellow, for example; Yellow, Yellow Green, Yellow, Yellow Orange, Orange, Red Orange. (Remembering that these are all relative to each other) To cool these colors you might add the cooler neighboring color (sitting next to it on the color wheel) Example; Red Orange sits next to Orange on the color wheel, to cool Orange you could add a touch of a Red Orange (red orange is cooler because it has less Yellow in it) try this and compare the difference you 'see' in the result.

Which colors are believed to be cooler and why?
Generally cool Colors can be those containing Blue for example; Blue, Green, Blue Green, Blue Violet, Violet and Red Violet. (remembering that these are always relative to the others) To warm these colors you might add the warmer neighboring color sitting next to it on the color wheel.  Example; Blue Green sits next to Green on the color wheel, if you want to warm the Blue Green just a little add a touch of Green, try this and compare the difference you see in the result. It is important to note: Blue can perform differently depending on the element being painted. For example - a blueberry is painted differently than a wave on the ocean.

Are all colors containing yellow believed to be warm? No - not always.
The above guidelines are only elementary, but a place to start.  The answer to this question is based on the actual Yellow pigment that is being used to mix the color. Some Yellow pigments are considered warm and some are considered cool.  To help the artist understand this concept better, one can study the Pigment Wheel. 

Artist Technical Guide
The Traditions Pigment Wheel
JansenArt Traditions Technical Guide pigment Wheel
Visit the Art Apprentice Online Store for details about the Traditions Artist Technical Guide Book. This is a valuable reference book for the artist, it explains pigments, techniques and also the rationale of the pigment wheel which is an important mixing tool for any artist.

The Traditions Pigment Wheel is found on page 52 of the Traditions Artist’s Technical Guide book.  The layout of the pigment wheel shows how the Traditions pigments are more in tune with the science of mixing.  For example; if the artist looks at where Hansa Yellow and Hansa Yellow Light are positioned on the pigment wheel, one can see that Hansa Yellow Light is positioned closer to the cooler side of the Yellow spectrum.

Cooler versus Warmer - why?


Warm colors advance and cool colors recede - Not always.
This statement is only true only on a cooler background color or against some other cooler element that it rests on.  Warm will recede against a warm background and cool will recede on a cool background color.  Again... it is always relative to the temperature of the background.  Opposite temperature contrast will make objects advance and similar temperatures cause them to recede.

Creating Warm and Cool within the same object - is this possible? Yes

Many artists choose to paint with a warm lightsource, however there are different temperatures of light, for example moon light is a cool lightsource? For the sake of this article, we will discuss using a warmer light source - as in warmer day light. It is also important to understand that sunlight is perhaps a warmer lightsource, during the course of the day, the temperature of daylight will and does change from warm to cool.

As we study more about light and the properties of its temperature, we will learn that different lightsources will emit light of different color temperatures, therefore the color hue will differ based on this difference in the temperature of light. Think of the color of an object when light from a fireplace shines on it, compared to the blue-ish light cast just before sunrise.
Objects do get lighter and brighter as they reach or turn towards the light, sometimes they appear warmer than others and depending on the temperature of the light and the time of the day they may also get warmer.  As objects become darker they may also get cooler and duller. A good way to think about this is to think about what happens when you step out into the sunlight, then step back into the shade - what happens to the color of your clothing?

  The artist's paint box should be made up of a good balance between pigment temperatures. Including warm, cool and neutral pigments.  
Visit the Art Apprentice Online Store for details


To achieve warmth in an object, let's think about painting a simple 'apple' and how mixes can range from cool to warm.  For this example we will assume that the lightsource is warm.

Mixing Reds


Simple Exercise: Mix up a 'value scale' of five values using Red in the middle (medium value). The colored sample below is just an idea, don't worry about matching them (the colors) exactly, this is just to give you some idea to the results of mixing for temperature.

  • Undercoat the apple with the medium value Red. 
  • To lighten, instead of adding white add a little yellow to add the warmth, lighten again by adding yellow plus white. These will be your highlight values.
  • To darken add a touch of Ultramarine Blue to cool the medium Red mixture, to darken again add more Ultramarine Blue. 

Now paint as usual building simple form. There you have created the use of two temperatures on one object. In one apple you will see that there is a range from warm to cool. Warm where the light hits the object and cool where it turns away into the shadow area on the apple. Try this, you will learn allot from this simple exercise.

Mixing Reds

Value scale from cool dark to warm light

Why artists use temperature...

Using temperature correctly can create numerous effects. 
Examples of how temperature works.

  • Depth - Using the background temperature will determine which temperature to use so objects will recede or advance.  Cool objects recede on cool backgrounds; warm objects recede on warm backgrounds.

  • Separation - Making one object cooler or warmer than the other will separate and achieve depth as two objects cannot share the same space.

  • Transition – Similar temperatures will bridge the eye from one area to the next without interruption of the flow of the viewer.

  • Interest Using the contrast of Cool colors next to Warm colors, the eye will be drawn to that area therefore adding interest.
  • Attention – using cool objects next to warm objects can be used to draw the eye to the Focal Area first.   Miss use of temperature can do the opposite by drawing the eye away from the Focal Area.

    Temperature can create depth or distance

    cool reds orange

  • Relief – Too much of the same temperature will be boring and monotonous like the photo on the right, but by adding small touches of the opposite temperature will add relief and interest. Now look at how much more interesting the photograph on the left is. Even though the reds are overall warm, they show reds that are both warm and cool against a predominantly cool blue sky background.


  • The following painting lessons teach the artist how to work with the Traditions as a watercolor. Several elements are based on differences between warm and cool temperatures. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.


What are the factors and attributes to consider when working with color?

  1. Color
  2. Value
  3. Intensity
  4. Temperature
  5. Harmony
  6. Contrast
  7. Key
  8. Light

Not one of these topics above is more important than another because when each factor works together the result is "A Pleasing and Harmonious Overall Effect".  It is important that all of these work in unison and in tandem.

  • The following painting lesson teaches the artist how to work with the Traditions as an acrylic. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.