Lesson 5 - Color Temperature

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 something 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.

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.

The apple demonstration for Color Temperature

This is basically a still-life painting and by doing this, you’ll instantly find that on still-life, light is more chaotic and hard to predict. It bounces around everywhere creating various complex changes in temperature and value.

But don’t let that discourage you! Like many things, experience is what makes you better. The more you observe light, the more confident you’ll be in anticipating its movements.

Here’s some of the key points of the apple exercise:

1. Draw before you paint.

This may be a no brainer for some, but it can still be an enlightening step for others. Before we start painting, we should establish the general shape of our subjects. If we do so properly, we’ll have an easier time shaping the flow of our process.

2. Know your light-source

This is probably the most important part. The light-source is what gives the colors their distinctive characteristics and at the same time, it creates shadows.

Keep in mind that 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.) However, we should remember that this pattern is subtle, but if done right, it can make your paintings more realistic.

3. Start with the darkest darks first

Finding the darkest darks helps with value comparison, and ultimately, it can make your color-mixing easier. Build several areas of darker colors before adding the highlights.

In the past modules, we reiterated that value when used properly, can help make subjects look more three-dimensional. With that in mind, we have to remember that values should be clustered up together to have a better impact on your work.

4. Save your lights for last

Darks are substantially easier to correct than lights. By painting the darks first and restricting the use of your lightest lights, you are working more efficiently.

We recommend you make your dark areas thin and with lots of color and your light areas should be thick and bright. Use your lightest lights for the highlights and on the final layer of detailing.

5. Take a Step Back and See if Your Colors are Accurate

Looking too closely at your painting can restrict your perception. Not only that, being too close can give you an eye strain.

Stepping back not only gives you a new perspective and the opportunity of having a break from the painting but more importantly, it gives you the opportunity to see something you can’t from up close

6. Blend the Colors

Using a clean fan brush, pull the dark colors into the lights. You’d want to keep the dark colors pure.

This step creates the illusion of seamless shadows. Remember, most of the time, realism means having seamless transitions.

7. Notice the Reflections and Subtle Details

Some details are harder to spot than others. However, most of the important details involve reflection and color change. So keep in mind when you’re in the hunt for them.

The subject’s colors change because of the reflections of the colors nearby. It’s our job as painters to notice this and it’s our obligation to include it in our paintings.

Observe how the influence of the right apple and the light bouncing from the ground bouncing up to the apple. Squint and look at the apple and you’ll see the changes in temperature from top to bottom.

8. Work the form and Refine the details

Every painter has their own unique way of adding detail but there is one thing common in all of our idiosyncrasies — time.

Time is scarce, I know. But the more time we put in refining our subject, the more realistic it will be. It’s as simple as that. Reflections, value changes, color transitions and more. You’ll find that the little details count. The parts make the whole.

9. Lose Edges Into the Background

The beauty of oil painting is its ability to blend. With that in mind, you should always work your subject into the background.

A good tip is to never unintentionally leave an edge just sitting on the canvas. If an edge sticks out, the painting won’t look realistic.

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.