The Temperature of Color

Warm and cool are a way of classifying colors based on the feeling they convey.  Happy and bright colors are warm, while cool colors have a calming or cooling effect.

Warm and Cool Colors

Half of the colors on the color wheel are warm, while the other half are cool.

Warm Colors

Think of sunny colors, those are the warm colors.  Yellow, orange and red are all warm colors.  Additionally, the tertiary colors red orange, yellow orange and yellow green are also warm colors.  These are the colors that you associate with being warm, happy, and upbeat.  The colors of summer, and a sunny day are warm colors.  Warm colors are vivid and energetic, and tend to advance in space.

Cool Colors

Think of a winter’s day or a calm setting.  Blue, green and purple are the cool colors.  The tertiary colors blue green, blue purple and red purple are also cool colors.  These are the colors of a peaceful forest, a winter’s snow drift.  Colors associated with cool, serene places.  Cool colors give an impression of calm, and create a soothing feeling.  Cool colors tend to recede, so they are useful when painting shadows.

Okay that was simple, but wait there is more.

Warm and Cool Versions of a Color

Every color has both a warm and cool version.  But, red is a warm color!  It’s the color of fire, how could it be cool?  The answer is to mix it with a cool color.  The cool colors are blue, green and purple.  While green is a cool color, it’s not the best choice.  Remember from color mixing, if a primary color is mixed with a secondary color that does not contain the primary, then brown or a muddy version of the color is produced.  Thus adding either blue or purple (a mix of blue and red), are the best choices when mixing a cool red.   Let’s look at the color wheel.

Color Combinations - Color Wheel

Look at the color between red and purple – red purple.  Can you see how it is much cooler than the bright red.  This is the red of fall, when the temperatures are going down.  Now look at the red orange located between red and orange, see how bright and lively it is.  It feels warm just to look at red orange.  Many hues of red exist between red and red purple on the color wheel.  Created by adding varying amounts of blue to red, these are all cool reds.

Likewise, there are warm versions of purple, violet is an example.  Adding red to purple warms the hue producing a warm purple.

But, what about yellow?  Adding blue to yellow produces yellow green which is a warm color.  Yes, that is right.  However, a yellow with just a touch of blue (a blue bias) is a cool yellow.

Neutral Colors

Black, gray and white are neutral colors because they are neither warm nor cool.

Warm and Cool Neutrals

Both brown and gray have warm and cool versions, as do white and black.  When a warm color is added to a neutral color it takes on a warm feeling.  Conversely, adding a cool color will produce a cool version.

Mixing a Warm or Cool Gray, Black and White

Gray is a mixture of white and black.  Mixing black and white produces a neutral gray.  Adding yellow or red, will warm a gray, while adding blue or purple will make the gray cool.  This is also true for black and white.  For a summer layout, select a white that has a yellow bias.  To achieve a cold wintery feeling, select a white with a blue bias.

Mixing a Warm or Cool Brown

Browns are a mix of all the primary colors.  For a brown that is cool, add more blue or some purple.  A warm brown has more yellow or red.

Why Care about Color Temperature

Warm and cool colors often don’t mix well together.  Yes, it is possible to mix them, but it takes a better eye for color than just staying in a cool or warm pallet.  Additionally, color temperature coveys a feeling, so using a yellow with a blue bias won’t seem as upbeat and sunny as a true yellow or one with an orange bias.  Subtle, but important.  Have a layout that doesn’t look quite right, but you don’t know why.  Check the temperature of the colors on the layout.  Where cool colors used on a layout about a fun, sunny day.  Or where a mix of warm and cool reds used – those are very hard to mix.  Or possibly, the layout is about the coldest day of winter, but the warm colors feel like it’s not that cold.  All these things can make a layout look a bit off.

Additional Color Theory Topics

If you haven’t already read the page about color systems and color mixing, that is a great next step.  Additionally, there are many internet sites and books on the topic.

Now that you are more aware of color, you’ll start to notice it more in your daily life.  The various shades of green in a forest, how purple pops when next to yellow and when two shades of red don’t go together you’ll know why.  Play with color, experiment with color, but most of all keep learning about color.