All about warm and cool colors

From the email bag: Helen asks, "I have a very basic question for you. I find it so difficult to assign warm and cool to colors,it still confuses me. I am using Golden heavy body paints and need to Hansa Yellow Light cool, greenish? Is Hansa Yellow Medium warmish, red? ... Is Ultramarine blue, warm, red?"

Thanks for your question Helen. The easiest way for me to answer this is to say that warm and cool are like the sun and water. The warmer colors are all reds, yellows and oranges. The cooler colors are all blues, violets and purples.

That being said, there are relative warm and cool colors within each broader group. For instance, Ultramarine blue is a very cool blue, while Cerulean Blue is a much warmer blue because it has more yellow in it. On the other hand, Quinacridone Red is a much cooler red than Napthol Red Light because Quinacridone Red has a bluish undertone.

To help understand the nuances of color and whether a color is warm or cool, it's helpful to look at where the color lands on the color wheel. Is it closer to yellow or blue? Take a look at the color wheel above, you will see that magenta is closer to blue than to yellow, therefore it is a cooler red than "red".

It's also helpful to use pigment names rather than the generic names of colors to pin them down on the color wheel. Look at this color wheel from Golden Artist Colors

You can see that by using the pigment names rather than the generic names it's easy to place the colors on the color wheel. Then it's a simple job to answer the question, closer to blue or closer to yellow? That will help you define if a color is cool or warm.

So in answer to your question, Hansa Yellow Light is greener than Hansa Yellow Medium, therefore HYM is warmer. Ultramarine blue is definitely not reddish warm. It's a very cool blue. Cadmium Red Light is very orange so therefore warmer than Cadmium Red Medium which is slightly cooler.

Hope that helps!


Susan Grote said...

I am trying to learn to use Fluid acrylics as watercolor, but the color wheel is very different. I think any watercolor book that has a color wheel, including Nita Leland's Exploring Color, will show these differences from the Golden color wheel -- causing much confusion! I usually work with a very limited wc palette--cool yellow, warm yellow, cool red, warm red, cool blue, warm blue, burnt sienna and diox violet. Since buying a set of Fluid Acrylics, I have been making color charts and trying to master their differences from watercolor colors, and they are a whole new concept! (Starting from the use of Cyan, Magenta and Hansa Yellow instead of traditional primaries. Traditionalists like me expect to see Violet, not Primary Blue, opposite yellow! It's not easy to grasp that primary blue is now a secondary color.) To traditional watercolorists (and the Winsor & Newton company), Ultramarine is a warm blue (closer to red), vs Pthalo blue (slightly greenish) as a cool; Cerulean blue watercolor is considered cool although biased toward yellow (but it's warm in Fluid acrylics because it's biased toward yellow....and it appears slightly redder than wc Cerulean to me.) It took me a while (and a look at pigment numbers) to realize that Fluid Quinacridone Red = Permanent Rose watercolor, which W&N recommends as its warm red on a 6 color palette. Quin Magenta or Alizarin Red watercolors are cool reds & work on a six color wc palette, but Golden Alizarin is much browner/more neutralized than Alizarin or Permanent Alizarin watercolors -- not a good choice for that slot. And Fluid Burnt Sienna seems light to me -- in fact, when mixed with water, it will eventually separate into white and colored pigment. I often mix Fr. Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna watercolors to get a dense black -- not sure how that's going to come out in Fluids.... Your Golden Workshops were very helpful, but if I hadn't spent money on the acrylics, I would have given up in frustration and gone back to the color chart I know well. Thanks for you practical, hands-on mixing experience. Acrylic beginners like me just need to be aware that along with the advantages, there are differences -- I'm not sure there is any substitute for learning by doing.

Tesia Blackburn said...

"I'm not sure there is any substitute for learning by doing." Wise words Susan! Color is a very complex issue and there is always more to learn. Keep at it!

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