The World of Watercolor: Color Temperature in Art

Posted by on May 16, 2014 in Painting | Comments


Using the property of color temperature in art can build depth and mood in your watercolor paintings. Color temperature refers to the level of warmth contained within any certain color. The way we classify colors based on this property is either as warm or cool. The very basics of this type of classification are very straightforward and in tune with the way we usually perceive colors in the real world, and what we associate them with. For example, we associate red with things like fire and the sun, making it a warm color; and blue with ice and the ocean, making it a cool color.

Watercolor swatches - exploring color temperature in art

Hot and cold: Discover the world of color temperature in art

Temperature among different colors

In this broad sense, different hues are compared and contrasted against each other and classified depending on their temperature — red is warm, blue is cool. The placement of colors on the color wheel is based precisely on this premise, with reds, oranges and yellows together on the warm side while greens, blues and purples are on the cool side.

But, if we peel off this initial level of classification and dig a little deeper into color temperature, we find that different red hues can be classified as cool and blue hues can be classified as warm. This is where things get a bit more subjective and relative.

Temperature between variants of the same color

When comparing two or more variants of the same color, like the blues above, we need to look at their undertones. The blues containing a red undertone (leaning toward a violet hue) are classified as warm and the others as cool. That being said, classifying colors by their temperature is subjective and artists sometimes have different views on this topic.

So, nothing is set in stone when comparing the temperature of similar hues. It all depends on what you are comparing the color to. A blue can be classified as cool color when compared to a red, but it could also be classified as a warm color if it contains slight red undertones and is being compared to a cooler blue.

Studying temperature

Since these are not absolute rules, I recommend not getting too caught up in this. Simply having an understanding of this concept can go a long way when mixing colors or creating an eye catching composition. Temperature can play a huge part in setting up a particular mood in a painting and conveying a feeling.   Watercolor - temperature study in art

You can get more acquainted with this property by swatching different variations of a same color and making them slightly warmer or cooler by mixing in reds or blues into your hue. For example, adding yellow to an orange will result in cooler orange hues. In the same way, adding more red to an orange will create warmer shades of orange, and so on.

Let’s take a look at some great examples using temperature in paintings from members of the Craftsy community.

Katharine, 10″ x 8″ oil on linen by Craftsy member Brian Neher.

Notice how the subject pops right out of the painting thanks to the use of a muted and contrasting cool background. Warm colors tend to be perceived closer by the human eye while cool colors tend to be perceived farther away. 

Sunset Poppies via Craftsy member Steve Butts

Similar to the technique used in the above painting “Katharine,” the poppies are painted in a very warm hue and contrast against the cool green in the background, making them the main focal point of the painting.

Transition by Craftsy member kolorama1662292.

I love the beautiful hues in this piece entitled “Transition.” Look at how the orange sections of the clouds take front and center while the purple and blue areas seem to be far, far away. The wonderful use of temperature here creates a lovely mood.

How do you like to play with color temperature in your watercolor paintings?