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.