Working with Warm & Cool Colors

Working with Warm & Cool Colors

Before reading this article, I recommend you read my blog on value. It will enhance your understanding of this material.

Terms you Should Understand

  • Hue The meaning as color
  • Pure Colors  No other hue is added to the color, like black, white, or gray.
  • Tint A tint is a pure color with white added to it.
  • Tone A tone is a pure color with gray added to it.
  • Shade A shade is a pure color with black added to it
  • Primary Colors Using the Subtractive color model, the primary colors are Yellow, Red, and Blue.
  • Secondary Colors are made from two different primary colors. They are Orange, Violet, and Green
  • Tertiary Colors are made from primary and secondary hues. They are Yellow-Green, Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Violet, Blue-Violet, and Blue-Green


Inherent Value

Every color has a corresponding value. This concept is referred to as inherent value. Here is an example of the relationship between color and its' value. Next to each color tile is its' value. Notice how the green and red in this example have the same value. Often, when people first see the inherent value of pure colors for the first time, they are surprised at how dark the values are.

Example of Inherent Value

Notice how the hues of red and green have the same inherent value. 

Knowing the inherent value is essential for designers and artists. For example, if you design a piece with similar values, which is then duplicated in grayscale, you can end up with a blob of gray! The red poinsettias in the photo below are striking but lose clarity when the color is stripped away.

Example of value and color

Saturation & Desaturation

Saturation (or pureness) is the intensity and purity of a hue. Another way to think about this is the brightness or dullness of a color. As color becomes grayer, it is referred to as desaturated.

Example of desaturated colors

In the example above, the pure color is on the far left. As you progress to the right, the color progressively becomes desaturated.

Color Wheel

The color wheel showing the complementary colors of violet and yellow.

Complementary & Color Contrasts

Leonardo de Vinci was the first to develop the concept of complementary colors. Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel and represent the highest form of contrast in color harmonies.

Color Vibrations

If you select equal valued and saturated complementary colors, the hues can appear to vibrate—the vibration happens within the eye. Not everyone experiences color vibration, so don't worry if you don't experience it. But if you create a design and people tell you parts of it appear to be vibrating, believe them! Fixing it is a simple change. Change the value of one of the colors or the purity of a color, and then vibration should be eliminated.

Color affected by other colors

Each color is affected by the color surrounding it. So, if you want blue to appear bluer, surround it with its complementary color of orange. If you want a warm color to appear warmer, sound it by a cooler color. Afterimages also happen with color interaction, and yet we learn to tune them out. For more on this concept, read my blog on value.

 Where the Eye Goes First 

Any decent color theory book will tell you that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. This means we see warm colors before cool colors. Good information, and we will take this concept a step further.

Warm and cool colors
Yellow, orange, red are warm colors. Green, blue violet are cool colors.

The Physics of Colors

When working with warm and cool colors, remember that the first color the eye sees is yellow, then orange, red, yellow-green, green, blue, and then violet. This is physics, pure and simple, and happens so quickly the viewer is often unaware of it. Awareness of this concept while creating a design helps artists create visual movement.

Basic Colors
Yellow-green is in the middle of our color range

Please note we are discussing colors used in print, paint, dyes, etc. We are not talking about color and light. For example, think about police car lights. The idea is that when in use, you need to see the lights, even on a sunny day at noon. This has much to do with the strobing light used in the light’s fixtures.

Cop Car
Photo by Pixabay,

How to Make This Concept Work

To make this concept work there needs to be two things in place, purity, and value.

First let’s look at the purity. There needs to be a noticeable difference in the purity of the main color and the colors surrounding it.

The tile on the left is correctly demonstrating this concept. The main hue of blue is pure, and the surrounding color is a tint of purple; a very light hue at that. The right tile is not demonstrating this concept. The main hue is a tone of blue (it has gray mixed in it). The green surrounding the main color is pure.

 The tile on the left is working, and the tile on the right is not working.

 The second part of this concept deals with value. There needs to be a noticeable difference between the value of the main color and the color surrounding it. In the upper left tile, there isn't enough difference in the value of the main color, pure yellow, and the surrounding color, a tint of yellow (a tint is a color with white added). The tile on the bottom left is the Inherent value of the top tile.  

The upper right tile perfectly represents value working with the main color. The yellow stands out due to the dramatic value difference.

Value and Purity
The tile on the left is not working, and the tile on the right is working.


Saturation & Value Contrast Counts

Which colors appear to advance first?

Which do you see first

 Hands down, most people correctly select the yellow-green tile on the right. Let's analyze the brown tile on the left. This hue is a shade (a color plus black) of orange, as demonstrated in the screenshot below. As the eye sees orange before yellow-green, why did you see the yellow-green first? It has to do with the purity of the two colors. The yellow-green is pure, whereas the orange tile is not pure having black added to it to create a shade.

 Screenshot of Photoshop

Second, the inherent value of the orange tile is very close to the inherent value of the color surrounding it. As you can see in the slide below, the inherent value of the yellow-green tile has a noticeable difference between its value and the value of the color surrounding it.

Inherent Value example
The inherent value of the sample above.

 High Color Contrast & Value

You can have high color contrast and high contrast value. Both high color contrast and high contrast value have a lot of movement/energy. The example on the left has high color contrast. On the right is the same example converted to grayscale, showing it has high contrast value too.

An example of High Color Contrast and High Contrast Value. The right one is the inherent value of the left example.

As we have seen the Ed Paschke painting, below, in the value article, a piece can have high color contrast and not have high contrast value. The color is high color contrast, but the value is low-key.

Caliente, by Ed Paschke, 1985 (The Art Institue of Chicago)

Making yellow-green warm or cool

In the value blog, I discuss afterimages and how colors affect the colors surrounding them. I also discuss warm colors and cool colors. Let's revisit those concepts with the color yellow-green. 

Yellow-green is a tertiary color meaning a color made from combining primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors behave like a warm or a cool color depending on the type of color(s) surrounding it. We will concentrate on the tertiary color yellow-green because it is in the middle of the high color contrast color spectrum.

To make yellow-green appear warm, place a cooler color around it, such as green, blue, or violet.

 Color sampleTo make yellow-green appear cooler, place a warmer color around it, such as yellow, orange, or red.

Color Sample

Why does this work?

When a warmer color surrounds yellow-green, the surrounding colors push the green forward (in the yellow-green). When a cooler color surrounds yellow-green, the surrounding colors push the yellow forward (in the yellow-green). This concept works with other tertiary colors to varying degrees.

Why are these concepts important?

How can these concepts work to the designer's advantage? Let's say you need some text to stand out from the rest of the layout. Using a warm, pure color on the text and placing the text on a background with high contrast value from the text hue will automatically draw the viewer's eye to the text first. For an added effect, the background color should be a cool hue.

Here are some examples of how artists have used this concept to their advantage. The work we are looking at was created in the early 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, color theory quickly developed while incorporating science. 

When looking at this work, don't underestimate what these artists were doing. They broke with the long-standing traditions of color used for centuries before their creation. The Impressionists, prominent during the 1870s and 1880s, were the first artists to embrace color theory and science.

Used in the Fine Arts

Leon Kroll created a circular flow based on color placement and value (below). Your eye comes in at the yellow and orange fruit. It then travels up the left, red curtain. Next, the eye travels to the opposite red curtain via the snowy, white rooftops (Value). Last, the viewer is led back to the fruit bowl down the right, the red curtain.

Notice how Kroll stops the yellow buildings with violet buildings from popping in front of the fruit and curtains by using lowing the saturations of those hues.

 Leon Kroll

City Window Series: Still Life with Fruit, by Leon Kroll, 1920 (Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg)

The painting below is by Franz Marc. By flooding the picture plane with a sea of yellow and supporting it with predominately warm hues, Marc successfully makes the viewer read the cool colors as highlights. He creates a spiral flow by using the green in the background, through the blue tail, into the horse's mane.

 Horse in a Landscape, by Franz Marc, 1910 (Folkwang Museum)

Horse in a Landscape, by Franz Marc, 1910 (Folkwang Museum)

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