Sometimes art terms can be darn right confusing. Today’s post is all about some weird terminology that painters use to describe their colors.
Remember the Color Wheel?
Recall the color wheel; (you can get one here) this lovely tool describes the placement of a color’s hue in relationship to one another. The color wheel is helpful in predicting results from mixtures of various paint colors. The color wheel can just about be divided in half leaving the hues yellow through red for one section and green through purple for another section. This yellow through red zone on the color wheel is what most artists consider to be the warm side of the color wheel. The green through purple zone of the color wheel is considered by most to be the cool colors. Used here the terms “warm” and “cool” are used in an absolute sense. Any hue such as red, yellow, or blue-green has a definite placement on the color wheel and it will be located in either the warm zone or the cool zone. In this sense, when one considers its absolute placement on the color wheel, a red is without a doubt considered a warm color.
Now here’s where things get more interesting.
Artists also speak of colors in terms relative to the hue being discussed. It’s a hue-centric way of thinking. A red can be considered warmer or cooler according to its relative proximity towards the cool colors. So if we were comparing two different reds we could say “Alizarin crimson is a cooler red when compared to cadmium red”. In other words, alizarin crimson can be thought of as a red that favors blue, has more blue in it, or leans towards blue in its placement on the color wheel. This mode of thinking works for just about any color because colors are rarely perfect; they always tend to lean one direction or the other. Even if we do find a red that is a perfect red, once we compare it to another red we will be describing one of the red’s as cooler than the other!
A yellow can also be considered to be cool or warm depending on which way it leans on the color wheel. Lemon yellow has traditionally been a cool yellow while cadmium yellow typically leans towards the warm side of the color wheel. Once we understand the realm in which an artist is describing a color we can gain more insight into what kind of hue they are using and finer calibrate our discussions regarding color choices.
The article is here to help you understand what other artists are talking about when they refer to colors being “warm” or “cool”. The problem with all of this kind of talk is that it’s a bit vague and can vary from person to person. Wouldn’t it be great if we could describe a color and all of us understand exactly what color we would be referring to?
You can… and that problem was solved 100+ years ago by a man named Albert Munsell.
Please read my article on An introduction to Munsell Color to get a really good grasp on how to work with color in a logical way! It’s a much more precise way to describe color rather than using terms like “warmer” and “cooler”.