One area of the painting process that shakes the confidence of most beginners is how to mix color. For this reason many artists opt to buy every tube color they think may come in handy. Unfortunately this becomes an expensive and frustrating exercise. Especially since fancy tube colors are seldom used or required.
In this painting tutorial I am going to shed light on one important color mixing topic. One that will help painting beginners unlock new potential when mixing paint colors. Plus watch the step by step painting demonstration video below.
What is Color Temperature?
This is a misleading term since the paint does not hold any relevant thermal temperature. I'm sure we all get that. The next common idea is that some colors are warm and others cool. For instance red and yellows will always be warm. Blues and purples will always be cool. These ideas come from long standing human experience. Sun is yellow and burns and so on.
It is Not About the Rules
When learning how to paint following rules can be a problem for beginner artists. For example have you noticed landscape scenes where the late afternoon sun is shining on distant hills? The foreground and middle ground may appear cool. But warm light bathes the distant hills.
If you follow the rules then there is a problem. The foreground should be warm not cool. The distant hills should be cooler so you reach for the blue paint. Can you see how this is going to lead to confusion and poor color choices?
I still remember another artist's criticism for my color choice in a landscape. I used warm colors for sunlit hills and cool colors for a shaded foreground. She told me this was wrong. Never mind that my eyes saw different.
The so called rules should never override what is actually there.
It is About Relationships
Instead of relying on preconceived ideas about warm and cool color commit this idea to memory. Color temperature is all about how warm or cool a color appears compared to other colors.
The relative relationship between colours determines whether we call them warm or cool.
This means that artists must observe the color in the moment. Ask whether that color is warmer or cooler than the color next to it. In the above landscape example the distant hills will be warmer in color than the shaded foreground. A self evident fact. So use warmer color in the distant hills.
Avoid Mixing Recipes
For this reason I do no like the painting technique of premixing colors before I start painting. As the painting develops I have to keep comparing color temperature and values. Then mix color as required. Premixing tends to lock one into a certain direction. Rather observe and mix as you go.
There is an exception. When painting outdoors a sudden weather change can alter the scene dramatically. In this case you have two options. Continue to work on memory and your color path already chosen. Or pack up and try again later under the original weather conditions. A lot depends on the stage you have reached, but the latter option is often best.
One Helpful Rule You Can Count On
Warm daylight conditions will produce cool shadows. Cool light conditions will produce warm shadows.
If your scene is under sunny light then the direct light will appear to be in the yellow spectrum. So shadows will need more blue to cool them down. Be careful about using a dark brown to create a shadow. Darker does not mean cooler and your shadows may look odd as they are too warm.
In overcast light shadows will appear wamer since the direct light is cool.
Establish the Nature of the Light
To use this rule you must first decide whether the light is warm or cool. This can be tricky under hazy conditions. You may have to observe the shadows to decide if they appear cooler or warmer to ares in direct light.
Artificial lighting also poses similar questions. Tungsten bulbs produce a warm light. Fluorescent will be cooler. Establish the light source temperature and the rest falls into place.
Now that you have asked the question about a shape's color relative to the adjacent colors you need to mix it. If you are using the primary colors and white you will be able to mix almost any color desired.
Local color is the intrinsic color of a shape. For example the grass is green. This is a starting point. Then you need to decide whether that green shape is warmer or cooler than the shape next to it. If sunny conditions prevail then the grass under direct light will be warmer than grass in the shade. Add more yellow to the warm green and more blue to the cool green.
Paint Mixing Tip
There is no getting away from it. You need to practice color mixing. If you use the primary colors and white you will have far more control. Spend time mixing one into the other. First without white added then with white. See the differences. Also notice the transparency change when you add white.
Why Bother with Color Temperature?
First off if you want to get the color right then temperature is relevant.
Second when you get the temperature right the harmony of the colours look much better. The painting has something more compelling to it. You will notice the difference.
Third is the scope you will have to paint different subjects. This is a big deal. You will be able to understand what you are seeing and interpret this with paint on canvas. A big step for an artist and not to be taken for granted.
Ready to start comparing color temperature?
Learn more about color temperature and color mixing in my course: Learn to Paint With Impact. Plus claim your course discount.
Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa