I recently wrote about my love of artist Edward Hopper. In writing, I mentioned that he used the technique of warm lights and cool shadows. Hopper wasn't the first artist to use this technique; it became popular with the Impressionists.
The Impressionists painted when color theory was in its infancy, which they incorporated into their artwork. They were fascinated by science and the arts. One of the defining interests of the Impressionists was the interaction of color and light.
Before the 1860s, the long-standing tradition in European art was local color. Local color is defined as using the actual or true colors of the subject(s) being painted.
What is Local Color?
When I taught, I would explain the concept using the example of grass. The shape of an object using local color is often created by adding black, white, or gray paint to the main hue. Most commonly, the grass is painted green. The artist paints a shadow mixing black or gray into the green paint to form the shape of the grass. That's local color in a nutshell. Artist Edward Willis Redfield is one of many painters who has mastered local color.
Warm Light / Cool Shadows
Here is a brief look at the science. As sunlight filters through the Earth's atmosphere, it encounters various gases, affecting specific colors of light. The warm hues are mainly not affected, but the cool hues are; thus, the sky appears blue on sunny days. The light from the sun travels a greater distance to the Earth's surface at sunrise and sunset, causing cooler colors to peter out, leaving us with (mainly) warm colors in the sky.
We are accustomed to the sunlight of the area where we were raised, and we often take our local daylight for granted. You will see warm light / cool shadows on your trips through nature with the right circumstances of awareness, weather, and light.
Iceland in 2015. The sun is about to set for the day. Notice how the snow looks blue as the sunlight filters out in the foreground.
Iceland in the Winter
I had the great pleasure of traveling to Iceland in December 2015. The capital, Reykjavik, is located in the southwestern section of the country. During the winter solstice, Reykjavik receives about four hours of sunlight. Addionally, the sun doesn't get very high in the sky which alters the light. I was able to experience warm light / cool shadows firsthand, traveling in the countryside of Iceland. It was like living in a Monet painting!
Parliament Hill in Iceland, when the sun was at its height for the day. Notice the beautiful pink reflecting onto the snowcaps.
How the artist applies this concept
It's a lot about those shadows, reflected light, and the type of light! According to Monet, "No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors; white and black are not colors." On rare occasions Monet used black he mixed it using different colored paints. For example, Ultramarine Blue mixed with Burnt Sienna.
Although the painting, The Magpie (1868–1869), is not as colorful as some of Monet's other paintings, you can see warm lights / cool shadows at work, especially in the shadows on the snow.
Warm sunlight (or warm canescent lamplight) creates cool, bluish shadows, as seen in The Magpie and my photos of Iceland. In the areas where the warm light hits the object, for example, in highlights, the artist uses yellows, oranges, and reds.
Contemporary artists have been known to exaggerate warm lights / cool shadows, as seen in the painting by Wayne Thiebaud, Four Cupcakes, 1971, Bologna Museum of Modern Art / Morandi Museum.
Cool shadows have purples, blues, and occasionally greens hues mixed into the hue. The artist doesn't need to incorporate a lot of purples or blues into the shadows to achieve this effect.
In theory, a shadow implies a lack of light, but it shouldn't mean a lack of color. Shadows are often full of subtle colors. If the artist paints shadows with pure black or dark grey, they risk creating areas that look dull or like holes in the painting.
The Edward Hopper painting, Sun on Prospect Street, 1934, is an excellent example of his use of warm lights / cool shadows. Cincinnati Art Museum.
Shadows may also hint at the complementary color of the object creating the shadow. For example, a yellow wall that creates its own shadow may contain hints of purple, yellow's complementary color on the color wheel in the shadow.
Detail. Note the blue shadows on the house and the yellows in the street where the sunlight beats down on the road.
There is also the concept of cool light warm shadows! In that circumstance, cool lights, like light through a window on an overcast day or from a fluorescent lamp, may create much warmer shades.
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1947, The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago
Back to My Man, Hopper!
Edward Hopper was a genius on many levels, including using warm lights / cool shadows. His technique was often subtle, but his application was sometimes obvious (See Gas). He shows this concept does not need to be in-your-face obvious to successfully create interest in a painting. Hopper, unlike the Impressionists, would use black paint in his painting, so it is not unusual to see him using warm light / cool shadows next to areas of gray shadows, too.
Detail of Nighthawks. A subtle but genius use of warm lights / cool. The shadows cast by the window frames onto the sidewalk have traces of purple, while yellow shows where the inner light filters out.
My photos never capture Hopper's colors well. If you are fortunate to have an Edward Hopper at your local art museum, closely examine his shadows and highlights. You will be amazed, but don't let the guards catch you standing too close to the painting!!!
Gas, 1940, Museum of Modern Art. An in-your-face warm light / cool shadow painting by Hopper. Here he is using green in the shadows.