Colour Temperature

The world of colour holds an incredible fascination to the beginning student. However, the varying hues and chromas held within the natural world can be so complex as to be overwhelming. One way to initially handle this complexity is to simplify it down using the concept of colour temperature.Colour temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a colour, with the warmest colours being orange and the coolest being blue. While one hue can broadly be viewed as warmer or cooler than another, the true power of this idea lies in finding subtle shifts within a larger, easily nameable hue.

Warmer colours tend to appear higher in value and closer to the viewer compared to cooler colours which tend to appear darker and further away. We can see this illusion in effect in the image below: the strips of orange and blue are the same value and chroma as each other. This feeling of recession created by the cool colours is linked to the effect of atmospheric perspective. The further distance light has to travel to reach the observer’s eye the more the colours of that light will shift towards the cool end of the spectrum as it passes through the many air particles.Landscape painters throughout art history have employed this effect. Below we see Isaac Levitan using it to create a compelling sense of space and atmosphere.


A light source can be thought of as either cool or warm and identifying it either way is important when deciding which colours to paint the lights and shadows. In a vacuum, an object with a warm light source will tend to have generally colder shadows and vice versa.

In Sargent’s fantastic set of Venetian watercolours, seen below, we see this concept thoroughly explored. Sargent appears to have used a palette mainly of blue and orange, simplifying the undoubtedly greatly varying hues that would have been present in nature. Note that due to the warm nature of sunlight, Sargent has made kept his light generally warm and made his shadows much cooler.


Colour temperature is not only a very helpful concept for designing accurate colour relationships, it is also a key consideration when defining the emotional significance of an image. Keeping our work in the colder range can suggest sorrow, despair and a heavy mournful atmosphere. While the warmer range can lend our work a more light, joyful atmosphere. Below we see how Alphonse Mucha played with this aspect of colour temperature to create two works with very different emotional messages.


by Charlie Pickard

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