Often, as an instructor of color & color mixing, I am asked, “How do I know if a color is warm or cool?”
There are actually two different answers to this question. Why? Because there is the big picture answer and then its subset. Over riding this question is: WHY is this so important for artists?
I know that once I knew the warm and cool of each of my primaries, the unwanted mud in my paintings essentially went away. Confidence in my color mixing also soared!
Most of us are familiar with the color wheel and the hue families of: yellow, green, blue, violet, red and orange. If you draw a line through the middle of the color wheel, much like the one below, you can delineate warm versus cool colors.
The Big Picture Answer:
Warm hues => yellow, orange, red
Cool hues => violet, blue and green
Now, let’s take it a step further. There are warm and cool colors of EACH of the hues available to us. For example, we have warm & cool yellows, warm & cool reds, warm & cool blues, etc. It does seem like an oxymoron, but it is not.
The Smaller Picture or Subset of the Answer to What Color is Warm or Cool:
In the figure below I show you the “subset” of warm and cool colors:
Within your array of tubes of primary colors, you have your own unique set of warm-yellows, cool-yellows, warm-reds, cool-reds, warm-blues and cool-blues.
Note: It is easiest to start out SEEING the warm versus cool biases of your primary colors before you tackle SEEING the biases of your secondary colors of green, purple and orange.
How do you determine the bias of your primary colors? There is only ONE WAY to do that. You have to paint a color swatch of each of your primary tubes of paint.
You cannot memorize them based on what someone else has said. It is critical that YOU SEE them through YOUR eyes using YOUR tubes of paint, because it is YOUR visual voice that you are expressing.
Gather up all of your tubes of paint and sort the primary colors into hue families of yellow, red and blue.
This figure of yellows below ~ painted swatches of various tubes of yellow ~ gives you an example of what your chart of primary colors could look like. It is always helpful to label each swatch.
Now, study the array of your yellows (and eventually your reds and blues as well) and you will begin to SEE which bias each of the yellows carries. It is only by comparing them side by side that you can SEE the differences.
Do you see any duplicates? Amongst your yellows, are you missing a warm yellow ~ one with some red in it ~ OR missing a cool yellow ~ one with some green in it? If so, then you need to purchase what you have missing.
If you want to stop mixing mud or are attaining unsatisfactory color mixing results, you must know the warm and cool biases of your tubes of paint. Let me pose this question: If you mix a yellow with some red in it with with a blue that has some green in it, what is going to happen? What will your color mixture be? Knowing the answer is why this concept of warms & cools it is so important for artists.
Submit your answers in the comment box.
To learn more about color mixing via an online video course, please visit my introductory video Acrylic Color Mixing Made Easy! produced by Craftsy. The principles taught in this video course can be applied to any medium — be it oils, watercolor or water mixable oils.
A Note About Blue: There is a disagreement as to which blues are warm and which are cool. The key is that you SEE the green-blues versus the red-blues. You might enjoy my post, “What is the Temperature of Blue?”