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Lesson 4 - Become A Color Temperature Geek

What is Color Temperature?

The most basic definition of color temperature is that it’s the perception of warmth and coolness of a color. In other words, it’s how our brains describe color.

When we think of color temperature, we think of how red looks warm or how blue looks cool. However, there’s more to it than that. Color temperature is not what history tells us it is. It’s not a product of the psychological reactions of human beings. Rather, leans more on the rules of Physics — to be more precise, the rules of light.

With that in mind, always consider the context of other colors when you determine temperature — you should always have a basis.

What is the basis of Color Temper

The main basis for determining Color Temperature is the light-source. This is because our eyes are reacting to light, not the color itself.

Here’s a scenario:

You’re in a room looking at a painting — gazing upon the intricate lines and dots the painter applied on the canvas. The power goes out and its pitch black in the same room. Would you be able to see the painting or anything at all? No you wouldn’t because there’s no light.

Any object’s physical presence has nothing to do with our vision. What determines what we see is the light reflecting on the objects — bouncing towards our retinas and ultimately processed by our brains.

Now with that in mind, we ask: how do we replicate the light bouncing off objects in our paintings? The answer to that is painfully obvious, but convoluted. We simply have to follow the physics of our light-source.

Determining Color Temperature by Knowing the Light

Light can never be replicated. As painters, we can only go as far as to create illusions of light.

As I’ve mentioned before, light-sources are the integral reason as to why we see. It shouldn’t be any different when we apply it to our paintings (realistic ones at least). We should know all about the light-source of the subject it’s direction, general temperature, intensity etc.

Once we established how the light works — and how it affects our subjects, we can now determine the color temperature. Once we’ve learned from the facts of our lights, we can use those facts as our “rules” of the setting.

Don’t get me wrong, the light-source affects almost everything about our subject. But for this lesson, I’d like to focus on how it affects color temperature.

How do we get the color temperature? We simply observe the scene with the rules we’ve established. In other words, we determine our temperatures by observing what happens because of the light — by taking mental notes of exactly what we see.

For example:

If the light is radiating a warm kind of color, the shadows will, generally, be cooler. Why is that so? I can’t tell you. It has to do with the relationship between light and shadow.

Generally, surfaces that are in direct contact with the light tend to be warmer. And places where the shadow starts to gradually appear are cooler. Generally, warm lights produce cool shadows and cool lights produce warm shadows (there are exceptions to the rule.)

Pale Roses © Daniel J Keys 2013 Oil 14″ X 20″

Notice the pattern of “opposites”. This pattern governs the relationship between light and shadow. However, we must keep in mind that the extent of the pattern is not as extreme as you might think. It’s subtle and not as drastic as you may think. But, those subtleties are what make your paintings realistic.

Now, how can we start making our color mixing choices more congruent with the light-source?

Simple. We observe and mix our paint.

Richard Schmidt Still Life ©, Oil on Linen 2011 18x16

Module 5 in our comprehensive painting workshop provides us with templates that induce color temperature to our already existing skill of observation and value. Learn more about our Painting Masterclass Here!

There you’ll find various color combinations that acquaint you with the process of manipulating color temperatures.

Here are some examples:

First, we’re going to take a look at Alizarin Crimson. It’s a deep, transparent, cool, bluish red. If we mix Alizarin Crimson with Viridian, we make the red darker and cooler. Easy enough, right?

And if we take that same color, then add a little Transparent-Oxide Brown, we’ll make it warmer, without making the Red that much darker.

Moving on to Viridian — the only green you’ll ever need. It is a cool bluish green and is very versatile.

To make Viridian warmer and darker you can mix Transparent-Oxide Red or Brown. Or if we use the right amount of Alizarin Crimson, we can make the green darker and cooler.

And if we mix a lot of the Transparent-Oxide Red with the Viridian, we’ll make a very beautiful and rich black which can be a good alternative to Mars Black or Ivory Black. This is good since I encourage painters not use black right out the tube in the beginning, it's better to create your own blacks and bend them to be warm or cool when needed.

Various color combinations will create various intensities of color. Color Temperature in painting is a byproduct of what we see, what we know and what we can do. With that being said, the best way to gain experience is to actually start doing things.

We created Module 5 because we realize that the process can be frustrating and tedious. Another part of module 5 is the “apple demonstration exercise.”

This exercise is the process of painting a still life like in the previous lessons, and we realize that still life are a whole other genre in and of itself. However, we encourage our students to delve in the process of painting still life because there is so much to learn just by paying attention to the smallest details.

Painting still life will acquaint you with the inner workings of temperature. Using the right temperature not only creates the illusion of light, but it also makes paintings more resonant. Furthermore, the more you pay attention to light and how it works in the real world, you'll have a better sense of vision when it comes to subtle changes of warmth. Especially when it comes to those colors within the colors.

With that in mind, the most important thing you can gain when practicing isn’t the concepts or theory. Rather, it’s the experience and the feel of what you just did.


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