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Defining Warm and Cool Colors: It’s All Relative

Figure 1: A "split primary" color wheel with warm and cool primary colors forming 4 color quadrants.

Figure 1: A “split primary” color wheel with warm and cool primary colors forming 4 color quadrants.

The concept of warm and cool colors has been written about for hundreds of years. Most theories start with the classic six point color wheel (three primary colors and three secondary colors). A dividing line splits the wheel into warm and cool. The line location varies based upon the reasoning of the theorist. Regardless, the general idea is the warm colors are Red, Orange and Yellow; and the cool colors are Green, Blue and Magenta (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The classic color wheel divided into Cool and Warm halves.

Figure 2: The classic color wheel divided into Cool and Warm halves.

Compare “yellow” to “blue” and it’s easy to see yellow is warm and blue is cool.  Comparing “red” to “magenta” might be less obvious since they are next to each other. But if you identify and compare the “color temperatures”, a bluish red (magenta) is cooler than a yellowish red (Figure 3). Describing how a color leans towards another primary or secondary is also referred to as its“bias.” A red, as we can see, can have a yellow or a blue bias.

Figure 3: The reds are spit into a warm, yellowish red on top and a cool, bluish red (magenta) on bottom.

Figure 3: The reds are spit into a warm, yellowish red on top and a cool, bluish red (magenta) on bottom.

Color temperature is also important during paint mixing. In order to make clean mixtures use colors with similar color qualities.  For example, mixing a yellowish red with reddish yellow yields bright secondary oranges (Figure 4). In describing a color to someone, we often refer to color “bias”. A red can have a yellow bias or it can have a blue bias.

Figure 4: The Yellow Red Quadrant contains a reddish yellow and yellowish red.

Figure 4: The Yellow Red Quadrant contains a reddish yellow and yellowish red.

To identify color temperature you’ll need to learn how to see and identify warm and cool colors. Some colors are easy to discern, but looking at our 108 colors in our Heavy Body Acrylics line, “color temperature” gets tricky.  In the world of paint colors, there are warm AND cool greens, blues, red, yellows, earth colors, blacks and whites. Comparing a warm red to a cool red and then compare those to a third color, you should be able to see if it’s yellower, bluer, or in between the first two reds.  Once you begin to “see” the differences it becomes easy to identify any color.

To make this as easy as possible, stretch out the color wheel to eight primary colors (Figure 1). The colors are on a grid.  Yellow is at the top, with the left example being a cool yellow because it has a green bias, thus we describe this as a “Greenish Yellow”. The yellow to the right is a “Reddish Yellow” and identifies as a warm yellow (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Yellows are divided with a cool greenish yellow to the left and a warm reddish yellow to the right.

Figure 5: Yellows are divided with a cool greenish yellow to the left and a warm reddish yellow to the right.

Clockwise, we move toward reds. The top red is a “Yellowish Red” because it has a yellow bias.  Not by accident, the Yellowish Red is in the same quadrant as the Reddish Yellow. Mixed together the resulting orange is “clean” (Figure 4).  Clean color refers to having no biasness resulting in a duller or “muddy” color.

The lower red has a blue bias.  Having the two reds next to each other makes it easier to identify the color temperature.  Our “Bluish Red” mixes very cleanly with our “Reddish Blue” at the bottom right, resulting in vibrant purples and violets.  Mixing the Yellowish Red with the Reddish Blue would make a dull maroon (Figure 6).

Figure 6: The upper left mixture shows a clean violet using a reddish blue with a bluish red. The lower right mixture uses the same blue with a yellowish red, resulting in a biased maroon color.

Figure 6: The upper left mixture shows a clean violet using a reddish blue with a bluish red. The lower right mixture uses the same blue with a yellowish red, resulting in a biased maroon color.

Each quadrant lines up similarly. The “Greenish Blue” or cool blue mixes cleanly with the cool “Bluish Green”. The “Yellowish Green” is warm and creates vibrant bright greens when mixed with its quadrant companion “Greenish Yellow” (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Mixing yellowish green with greenish yellow yields a clean, bright green.

Figure 7: Mixing yellowish green with greenish yellow yields a clean, bright green.

Color temperature doesn’t line up neatly when mixing colors. By chance the warm Reddish Yellow and warm Yellowish Red work together, but the warm Yellowish Green mixes best with the cool Greenish Yellow. What’s more important is that you can identify the color temperature and its dominant bias so you can choose the best mixing color based on your needs and paint colors you have on hand.

Below is a table that identifies the colors used to create this chart and additional examples of similar temperature colors (Table 1).

Warm / Cool Paint Color - Quick Reference Guide

Table 1: Warm / Cool Paint Color – Quick Reference Guide

For a full listing of the GOLDEN Heavy Body Colors, arranged from Cool to Warm by color families, please see the following PDF:

Cool to Warm Listing for GOLDEN Heavy Body Acrylics

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30 Responses to Defining Warm and Cool Colors: It’s All Relative

  1. Lisa July 18, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    That was well done! I didn’t know all that.

    • Michael Townsend July 19, 2017 at 8:13 am #

      Thank you Lisa!
      – Mike

  2. Cheri Adelmeyer July 18, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

    Ok, I understand warm and cool colors. Now, how do I apply this knowledge when choosing colors going next to each other. For example pink tulips, what color green do I pick. Warm or cold?
    Thank you.
    Cheryl A.

    • Michael Townsend July 19, 2017 at 8:12 am #

      Hello Cheri,

      Thank you for your questions! If your pink tulips are made using Quin Magenta or Quin Red, then you have a cool color. If you want to the green to be in front of or at least at the same distance (as you would with the stem and leaves, I’d use a warm yellowish green. If you want the green to be the background color, then a cool bluish green would help push the flowers forward. Juxtaposed colors are a wonderful area of color theory to study and practice.
      – Mike

  3. Ivan July 19, 2017 at 11:17 am #

    It is a good idea that you made that pdf file containing list of warm/cool golden colors. Could you do the same for Williamsburg oils (with italian and french eraths included)?

    • Michael Townsend July 20, 2017 at 6:25 am #

      Hello Ivan,
      Thank you for your questions. I believe we are planning to provide the warm and cool designations for Williamsburg Oils and QoR Modern Watercolors in the near future. I’ll add them in below the GOLDEN listings when they become available.
      – Mike

  4. Martha Bergman July 19, 2017 at 6:21 pm #

    Hello – Interesting article and just to add a note: Newton’s primaries were blue and yellow.

    • Michael Townsend July 20, 2017 at 6:34 am #

      Hello Martha,
      Thank you for your comments. According to “Color Systems in Light and Science” (Stromer, 1999), Sir Isaac Newton listed 7 primary colors in concert with the 7 sound intervals within an Octave of the Dorian Music Scale. He converted this from line into the familiar circle of which he is credited as the first to draw in 1678.
      – Mike

      • David Briggs July 25, 2017 at 1:29 am #

        Yes, Martha may be thinking of Robert Hooke or Christiaan Huygens here.

        • Michael Townsend August 3, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

          Or Von Goethe..
          – Mike

  5. janet July 20, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    i love these articles. thank you so very much for excellent resources.

    • Michael Townsend July 20, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

      You are most welcome Janet!
      – Mike

  6. Selena July 21, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

    do you have a print available to order of the pfd?

    • Michael Townsend July 21, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

      Hello Selena,
      If you click on the link for the complete warm/cool color list it should automatically download the PDF onto your device. We can also email a copy of the PDF to you if you like. email help@goldenpaints.com
      -Mike

      • Selena July 22, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

        I find my printer does not do a good job on color. Your product posters are my studio “wallpaper”.

        • Kelly Carpo August 27, 2017 at 2:37 pm #

          I have the same problem with my printer.

  7. Cathy Barzo July 21, 2017 at 1:19 pm #

    Interesting read…very helpful. Do you tubes of paint happen to indicate whether it is a warm or cool colour? That would be helpful when buying colours. If not, can you make that suggestioin to the company. We don’t always have our colour wheels with us at the art store. Thanks, Cathy

    • Michael Townsend July 21, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

      Thank you for your comments Cathy. I’ll be happy to pass your suggestion along to Marketing!
      – Mike

  8. David Briggs July 25, 2017 at 1:28 am #

    Great to see the four-primary (opponent hue) colour wheel being used here, it’s very intuitive for students, but imagine your diagram with every “warm” and “cool” reference removed. Wouldn’t it be perfectly clear and logical without them? I don’t know if you realize what a battleground you’ve waded into here over “warm” and “cool” blues, but you might like to read this: http://www.huevaluechroma.com/077.php

    • Michael Townsend August 3, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      Thanks David. I appreciate the feedback. Warm and Cool are terms we wanted to clarify simply, but it is hard to not get into this subject without identifying bias. I prefer to use bias rather than warm and cool to reduce confusion. Great link to the “battle”!
      – Mike

      • kathy cotten October 2, 2017 at 2:32 am #

        hi michael,
        i new artist and am trying to get into my head warm and cool colors, your article explained simply, please dont confuse me with bias whatever that is.
        thankyou
        kathy c

        • Michael Townsend October 2, 2017 at 9:28 am #

          Hello Kathy,
          Thank you for your comments. We tried to keep the technical jargon to a minimum for this article.
          The term “bias” refers to the direction a color leans. As the article describes, a red paint – unless perfectly balanced – will have either a yellow or blue bias. I like to use the phrase “yellowish” or “bluish” to describe a specific red paint which is in reference to the color bias. Overall, the terms you prefer to use: warm or cool color, yellowish or bluish color, yellow-bias red or blue-bias red, as long as you are able to make sense of it and most importantly be able to use that information to aid in painting is what it’s all about!
          – Mike Townsend

  9. Marty casey August 25, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

    I love just print! For articles just like this!! I haven’t seen my just print in the mailbox for over a year now… yet I sign up for it every time y’all Facebook an article from it…sigh:

    • Michael Townsend August 28, 2017 at 8:30 am #

      Hi Marty,
      Thank you for the positive feedback about the article and Just Paint. We moved to one printed copy a year but have committed to creating content every month for the online version at JustPaint.Org If you send an email to help@goldenpaints.com with your physical mailing address we can make sure you are signed up for the next printed issue!
      – Mike

    • Mark Golden August 31, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      Sorry Marty if we haven’t replied to you earlier. Just Paint in the Print version is now being produced once a year. Our JustPaint articles now appear much timelier online and we have committed to try to update our work much quicker with two articles per month. The Print version will be an even more exhaustive piece than it had been in the past allowing for lengthier discussions of topics that we believe merit greater coverage.

  10. Steve September 20, 2017 at 2:04 am #

    Any updates regarding the war/cool colors in the Williamsburg oil paints line?

    • Michael Townsend October 2, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      Hi Steve,
      None so far, but it is on the project list!
      – Mike Townsend

  11. Charles Eisener September 28, 2017 at 7:24 pm #

    I think for many beginning/hobby painters, these issues are often treated in academic terms rather than practical. That seems often to be the reason for confusion. This is similar to the relationship between pigments and colours. Trying to explain how or why the same pigment has a different dried appearance between different manufacturers can be daubting. That is before you consider the various common names for the same pigment!

    Enjoyed your explanation and discussion very much, and the .pdf showing the warm/cool relationship of your various acrylic colours is most welcome!

    • Michael Townsend October 2, 2017 at 9:40 am #

      Thank you, Charles. I appreciate the feedback!
      – Mike Townsend

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