218: The Challenge of color temperature

Study for Venetian Doors, 48″ x 36″

I was reading past comments on this blog and came across the following from fellow painter Tom Waters:

I was at a plein air event recently in the lush green mountains of Vermont and watched a very good painter paint a dominantly green landscape. He was using lots of colors and not trying to match the greens at all. The result was great and I talked to him after. He advised me to look at the color temperature. Representing the changing temperature was what he focused on, not the hue.

Is color temperature like other art principles–easy to grasp superficially but difficult to understand profoundly?
While ruminating on the possibility I saw some paintings by Albert Bierstadt and noted a color scheme in many of his paintings that resembled the Kelvin Temperature chart–a scheme that used oppositional oranges and blues.

Temperature wheel from
Color and Light by James Gurney

With renewed curiosity I reviewed the chapter Warm and Cool in the book Color and Light  by James Gurney (page 112). Gurney observed that the oranges (warmest colors) and blues (coolest colors) are opposite on the temperature spectrum. That might seem obvious but Gurney tellingly adds that “the greens and violets seem to have divided loyalties”. Note that there are no greens or violets on the Kelvin Temperature scale. Such observations suggest there might be more to temperature than I previously thought and that my struggle with greens might reflect an incomplete notion of color temperature. Could I find a remedy by thinking of temperature as primarily an opposition between orange and blue?

Kelvin Temperature Chart

I’m gearing up to do a major acrylic painting–see rough above–and have resolved to more fully explore the interplay of warm and cool colors. The exploration is ongoing. Please add your observations below.


Brad Teare–March 2015

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Updated: 1st December 2020
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