The blog posts I’ve seen on what is a warm color vs what is a cool color are always the shittiest art instruction articles. Every time you ask someone to give you a simple explanation, you leave just as confused as before.
So my goal after reading this article is for you to be able to answer a child. If a child comes up to you and says “what’s the difference between a warm color and a cool color?,” you should be able to answer in a way that they can easily understand.
So here goes.
A warm color looks like it can burn you if you touch it. A cool color looks like it can cool you off if you touch it. How’s that for simplicity?
Artists. Always making things more complicated than they have to be.
I’m the opposite of most artists. I believe that if you can’t explain it to a child, then you need to go back and relearn it.
How can we use this as artists?
Now that you know the difference between a warm color and a cool color, here’s how you can use this information as an artist. A warm color will pop forward in a painting whereas a cool color will appear farther back.
So yes, perspective takes precedence. But you’re also theoretically supposed to take color theory into account. (Knowing warm colors vs cool colors is a huge part of color theory).
Keep in mind the magic word – theory.
I do think that there’s some truth to it. But once again, perspective takes precedence. If you paint something in front of something else, that something in front will obviously look closer to the viewer than the thing in back.
I do think that knowing cool vs warm colors can add additional depth. And there’s even more. Keep reading..
Reds, yellows, and oranges are warm. Blues and grays are cool. Greens are generally pretty cool but some greens will start heading into the warm direction, but on the cool side. Same with purples.
You’ll also have variants within those colors. Like for instance, some yellows are warmer than others. Lemon yellow can look scorching hot whereas a more neutral yellow looks warm but not as hot as a lemon yellow looks.
Thus, I’ll use lemon yellow for the sun on a hot day. If I’m painting a beach scene where I want it to look like a really hot day on the beach, the sun will be lemon yellow.
If I’m painting the sun on a cooler day, it will have yellow with grays. And if I’m painting the sun going down for a sunset, it will have a more subdued yellow, maybe with some orange to it. Orange is still warm but it’s not as warm as an extreme yellow.
Does this sound like a little bit of psychology? If you read that, good job! Yes, but there’s even more psychology involved.
Arousal vs relaxation
Now let’s add a part III. Let’s get even deeper into psychology. Cool colors are supposed to relax you. Warm colors are supposed to fire you up.
Psychological studies have been done that claim cooler colors are better if you want to relax, and warmer colors are better if you want to get shit done.
Have you ever played Super Mario Bros? If so, you’ll get this reference. The game has a very pleasant blue for the sky. If you paint a child’s room with that same color, you’ll create a room for your child that can help him or her relax and sleep better.
Of course, this is situational. If your child is going thru severe stress, life will override the color of the room. But the room will definitely help!
Now getting back to painting. The truth of it all is that you should use colors that fit the painting. Knowing all of this may or may not help your artwork. But you definitely should learn as many tips and tricks as possible and it’s up for you to decide if you want to incorporate them into your art.
Always remember though one thing:
That especially applies to art. Your eyes are significantly more important than theory. But knowing an extra trick or two can’t hurt.
I incorporate color theory into my art but it’s an addition, not the focus.