Monday, November 1, 2010

Ask Stape; about color temperature.

Dear Stape,

I am hoping you can provide some deeper insight into the subtleties of warm vs cool temperatures and how the more advanced painters think about them. Often when I am watching a professional artist's demo or DVD the artist will point out instances of when they see a "warmer" or "cooler" color next to the one they just laid down. These are very subtle shifts, the ones that help to model form. But sometimes warmer can mean more yellow and sometimes it can mean more red or orange. How do they choose which color to push? Do they actually see more yellow or more red first and just speak about a color being "warmer" in the broadest terms? Is there a hierarchy? Inevitably I get confused, especially when the subject is flesh because the artist is moving in color space through variations on reds, peaches, browns and yellows. In that world, what is warm and what is cool?
Out in the Cold

Out in....

I think I know the source of your confusion, at least I hope I do. I believe it is this. When most people think of a warm color, they assume it must be a red or an orange, or maybe a yellow. When they think of a cool color they think blue or green. Those hues are warmer or cooler in relation to one another. BUT within any given hue ( another word for a color) there can be warmer or cooler notes. For instance in the red family. I might mix a warm red on my palette the color of a brick, and a cool note the color of cherries. They are both reds, and one is warm and one is cool in comparison to one another. Compared to a blue , neither might seem warm. It is all comparative. If next to my two reds, I mixed a note the color of fire, our brick red might seem to be a cool note.


So a red or an orange might be warmer or cooler. I could for instance make a comparatively cool orange by adding alizarin into it. I might even be able to place a note next to it made from ultramarine blue and cadmium red light that would be warmer than our orange. This gets to be important when we are representing something that must be say, warm in the light and then cool in the shadow. The whole object might be red, perhaps for example a barn. I could paint the warm side with cadmium red light, and the cool side with alizarin. Both are reds, but one is warm and the other is cool. So color temperature is not a quality of hue, it is its own thing.

Color temperature is also not "strapped" to value. I often see students automatically making for instance, a cool red darker in value than it appears. They are confounding value (light-dark) with color temperature.
There can be very light (high key) warm colors and there can be very high key cool colors. Color temperature is just that, how warm or cool the temperature of a given hue is, not how light or dark it is.

I haven't seen the artists demo CD's you are watching, but I would guess that when they are confusing you, they are hitting a note that is cooler than the other colors about it, to which they are comparing it. If instead of putting that particular color note on the painting, they put it on a sheet of white paper it might look warm, but in the position it occupies in the painting it is cool in relation to the other notes about it.

Perhaps it is a little like calling someone tall or short. I am tall most of the time (6'4"), but sometimes when I am standing next to people who are VERY tall I am not so tall. If I was standing in a room with the Boston Celtics you might say, Stapes the short guy. Its all relative.


Judy P. said...

The last two paragraphs speak volumes about color temperature, notably that sentence about isolating a color on a piece of white paper. I could have written this question several months ago, but I am starting to really understand this color temperature thing- not enough that it is now an easy concept, but I can say with smug confidence that I am 'less confused'.
Light dawns on me (and it's a good feeling).

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape, This is the clearest description of painting the temperature of a color, I have ever read. I am painting the figure this fall with Jeffery Watts at his atelier, and he is teaching me to model the form with temperature. So difficult, I realized I didn't really understand my palette (which I have used for longer than most of your readers have lived!) So I went back to the blank canvas and mixed dozens of flesh colors trying to use all the combinations of colors I could, to find the range of temperature I could get. It took a few days and was fascinating to see how the temperature looked so different when different swatches were juxtaposed. Of course there were more combinations than I could paint, but I have a much stronger arsenal to choose from, working with temperature in this way is the most exciting challange when I get it to work. Totally addictive.

The drop in #'s may be Halloween and the elections, lots going on this time of yesr. Amazing how the potters ability to 'see' the figure grew in increments from stick figures to muscle covered, probably the shared vision of remarkable teachers like you.

Terry said...

Couldn't have said it better myself.

billspaintingmn said...

Yeah! Just like ya said..

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Watts must be a great teacher, I love his painting. Thats the Fechin set of ideas.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

That's what I said.