317: Getting Temperature Right

–THE temperature of a painting is always relative. If a painting is mostly made up of blues nearly any color you add will appear warm–although varieties of blue can be either warm or cool. It gets rather confusing.

I found it easy to have a superficial understanding of temperature but achieving a deeper understanding was more difficult. An intellectual understanding of color temperature and a working knowledge of temperature are two different things.

A good way to think of temperature is to regard it as a spectrum, but not as the usual color spectrum artist’s use on the color wheel. It is better to think of color temperature as a Kelvin temperature spectrum with orange/red on one end and cool blue on the other. This spectrum is similar to the colors metals transition through when heated. In the illustration below, you can see the difference between the iridescent spectrum (like we see in a rainbow) and the Kelvin spectrum.

For artistic purposes, it is best to use the idea of the Kevin spectrum as a metaphor and not be too literal. With the Kelvin spectrum as the colors transition from warm to cool, the values shift toward white in the middle which will not translate well into painting. It is better to think of white as neutral temperature and the lack of pigment. Think of the rainbow spectrum as the local color and think of the Kelvin spectrum as what you add to those colors to warm or cool those colors.

Some artists think of the light of the day as progressing through iridescent colors–cool light in the morning and at noon, with the colors gradually turning warmer nearing sundown. But thinking of the daily color shift as a Kelvin spectrum shift is more useful. The light of morning being cool, the glare of mid-day light being white, or neutral, and the light of evening being warm.

Take a look at my Instagram feed and compare the color balances between cool and warm in the various paintings. Look at your own painting as a group to see how you use temperature. Are your paintings generally balanced between cool and warm? Or is there a pleasing asymmetry of temperature?

In the above photo of a recent painting, there is a lot of cool color. Initially, I had even more cool colors and had to gradually add more warm variations of blue and green to get the painting to work. I typically find that a painting that is too cool looks worse than a painting that is too warm. But it’s also inadvisable to have a color scheme that is perfectly balanced between cool and warm. Mixtures that are 75% warm to 25% cool, or vice versa will be more traditional, and off-balanced mixtures (90% warm and 10% cool) will be perceived as more abstract or atypical.

Of all the aspects of color; hue, value, saturation and temperature, the hardest to come to grips with has been temperature. But keep looking and experimenting, and you will understand this essential but often elusive concept.

Brad Teare –March 2017

Swallows Nest Rock (above), 12″ x 12″, oil on canvas, available at Anthony’s Fine Art

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Updated: 7th February 2023
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