Saturday, June 4, 2011

Link Love: Colour Temperature and Transparency

Over the last week and a bit I have been looking at warm and cool colours and how they recede or come forward in a space. I have also been looking at transparent and opaque colours in the same regard.  I'd like to share with you some of the things I have learnt through some Link Love.

Painting Tutorials

"Warm and cool colors are important in painting for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that warm colors tend to move forward in space, while cooler colors tend to retreat. This is mainly because of how we experience the world and is pure science. Within the atmosphere there are zillions of little water molecules floating around. The largest of which form clouds and eventually dump rain on us. But the air itself also contains water.  So when we are looking far away to the horizon we are actually looking through a lot of air, which in turn means we are looking at more and more water molecules, and the hills in the distance start looking blue and purple. This is called atmospheric perspective. And it was first labeled and widely used by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci. The second feature of atmospheric perspective is that objects also tend to lose their contrast and take on the color of their background (ie. sky)"1


Mona Lisa
by Leonardo Da Vinci

Notice how cool colors recede and warmer colors come to the forefront?

 A little while ago I did a computer generated image of me posed as Mona Lisa for my Facebook welcome page (below). Back in 2009 I did a painting called 'My Mona Lisa" where I depicted a bird as Mona Lisa (also below)  I enjoyed doing both it so much, and have been thinking of doing a painted self portrait of me as Mona Lisa.  The added knowledge that I've gained since the first Mona Lisa painting and looking at warm and cool colours has made me become more serious about doing it, that and I'd really like to start adding backgrounds to my images. I think painting a simular background to Da Vinci's background in the Mona Lisa painting is a good place to start to understand painting backgrounds that don't detract from the portrait.

Welcome Page for Facebook
by Tracey Potter

My Mona Lisa
by Tracey Potter

"The second thing to remember about warm and cool colors is how they create balance and a sense of fullness within a piece. This is easier to do when painting a landscape where there could be a cool blue sky, and this could be contrasted against the warm orange color of some leaves. But take a close look at an object, and you should be able to see a multitude of other shades and colors within that object itself.  The cooler colors can be tints, shades, or tones.  But be careful because you can also find warmth in certain shadows as well. However, generally cooler colors are used as shadows, and warmer colors as mid tones, and highlights". 1


Sleeping Head
by Lucien Freud 

Notice the interplay between warm colours and cool colours in this piece?

Below is a small scale of colors taken directly from the above painting. The Author of the tutorial suggest creating a small painting using these warm and cool colours. I'm always looking for a challenge, so It's worth a try, and something I may do in the coming weeks.



Gonzalo Ruiz Navarro

So how do you know which are cool and which are warm colours?

The below colour wheel has been broken into two to illustrate the warm and cool colours. 'Certain colors are generally associated with warmth and others with coldness. It is said that reds, oranges and yellows are warm while blue, green and violet are cold; being the greatest degree of warmth in red and of coldness in blue'. 2

Colour wheel sourced from:

Below is Gonzalo Ruiz Navarro's example of both warm and cool paintings. He says "Most paintings are based on a system of dominance of color temperature, being able to say that we can find in them a clear trend towards the warm or cold, which gives some sense of balance to the composition. There are as always exceptions where the role of one of the two groups is unclear but personally I think this type of composition is difficult to achieve". 2

Warm Colours

Cool Colours

Notice that the Warm colors are vivid and energetic and the Cool colors are calm and soothing?

"In the illustration above, notice that the warm, red circle appears to advance, or come forward, on the picture plane while the cool, blue circle appears to recede or go back in space. This is because the wavelengths of warm colors are longer so your eyes see them sooner than the shorter wavelengths of cooler colors. Using warm colors in the foreground of a painting and cool colors in the background of a painting can help create the illusion of miles of distance in a landscape and of a more shallow depth of space in a still life painting. The illusion of advancing or receding also helps create a sense of form.
The following demonstration shows how color temperature can be used to create the illusion of depth and form in a painting'. 3

Below is her helpful demonstration:

1. Right from the start, I used color temperature to create the illusion of depth by painting a cool background and using cool colors in the areas of the white drapery that recede toward the background and into the shadow areas. Specifically, I used mixtures of Payne’s gray dulled with cadmium scarlet and then mixed with titanium white. The areas of the drapery that have light on them and that are near the front edge have some Naples yellow light added to the titanium white. By warming those areas, they not only appear to be in the light, but they also appear to advance.

2. Here I’ve begun painting the fruit. The pear is a lot warmer on the side where the light is striking and cooler in the shadows, which creates the illusion of light and form. The same is true of the red plums. Using cadmium yellow, I warmed the area of the lightest plum—the one farthest forward and closest to the light—making that area seem to advance. The areas of shadow are cooler, adding to the illusion that they are receding, which also contributes to the illusion of form. These warm and cool temperature differences were not what my reference material showed me, but because I understood principles of color temperature, I was able to make adjustments. (In addition to temperature, I used value to create the form.) Temperature also helps convey spatial relationships. The plum on the right is a bit behind the other plum. That illusion arises in part because the front plum overlaps the back plum, but the fact that the back plum is cooler than the front plum also helps.

3. Here you can see that I changed the background to a warm, neutral color of the same value as the previous cool background. When you compare this image with the previous one, you can clearly see how the cool background recedes easily behind the fruit and drapery while the warmer one pushes forward, competing for the space where the fruit is.

Here you see the finished painting Pear and Plums (oil, 8×10) with blush added to the pear and frost added to the plums. The addition of these final details adds to the realism of the fruit. The warm red blush on the pear makes that part of the pear advance even farther and makes the form look even more dimensional.
Summing up, warm colors seem to advance while cool colors seem to recede, and you can use this knowledge to create the illusion of form and depth of space.

Jane Jones is the author of Classic Still Life Painting (Watson-Guptill,2004) and a popular workshop teacher. See more of her work and learn about her workshops at
I don't want to overload you with too much information in this post, but if you are still keen and finding this topic exciting, pop on over to Judy P's painting blog and have a read of her post about how she changed the temperature of some strawberries she painted and gave them life. It is very interesting.

YouTube Videos
I have been watching a lot of YouTube videos, as usual, this time with a main focus of exploring the subject of colour temperature and colour transparency. Below are some of the more informative ones that stuck in my mind.

Copper and Peaches

Oil Painting Critique

Understanding Warm and Cool colours

Opaque vs Transparent

Keeping Colours Clean

I hope this post was helpful :) Wishing you all a wonderful weekend!




  1. HI tracey this is a great post and serves as a great tutorial on colour temp. I used to discuss it continually as an art teacher and it is such an important concept for people to understand if they want to achieve great results! Thanks for sharing. Trace

  2. Thanks for compiling this blog post - a great resource for artists! :)

  3. You are both very welcome. I love to share my knowledge and what I'm researching. I do it with the hope to helps others and also as a way of keeping a record for me to go back to at a later date and revisit. Win, Win. :)