Color Curriculum

Cool vs Warm

By Carolyn Payzant

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 4


I have been playing with color for over 15 years and the subject of “cool” vs. “warm” colors has always thoroughly confused me. I understand that green and blue are cool and I understand that yellow, orange and red are warm. I also understand that cool color can recede and warm color can advance. What I didn’t understand was: how could there be a cool and warm value of let’s say yellow and blue or no significant temperature value in let’s say violet? Or what is the coolest or warmest color on my palette? 

I need to digress a bit. I have an extensive personal library on botanical art and color. And I read them over and over and over - again and then again – and again. I never tire of this pastime. And I glean new bits of information every time I open a book. What I have found is that my mind takes in and processes only what I am ready to learn.  

While skimming Contemporary Botanical Illustration with the Eden Project – Challenging Colour and Texture for a compositional clue for my Holly project – it is very beautiful plant but very rigid – I got sidetracked. There was a whole section on color temperature saying: the more green in a pigment the cooler the color (I assume this includes a trace of blue as it doesn’t take much blue to make green) and the more red in a pigment the warmer/hotter the color; plus it said there are a whole range of colors that absolutely have no temperature bias. 

I know many of you have purchased the paint that I have suggested. So let’s use those colors as our samples. 

  • DS – PY3 - Hansa Yellow Light 

This pigment has a green bias – therefore it is cool. 

  • DS – PY97 – Hansa Yellow Medium 

This pigment is primary yellow – therefore it should have no temperature but in full strength it is warm (it has a touch of orange in full strength), in tint it has no temperature. 

  • DS – PY65 – Hansa Yellow Deep 

This pigment has a slight reddish bias – therefore it is warm. 

  • MG – Py151+PO62 – Gamboge 

In full strength it is warm and in tint it is cool. 

  • DS – PO20 – Permanent Orange 

There is not a smidgen of green or blue in this pigment – therefore it is warm. 

  • DS – PO73 – Pyrrol Orange 

Again there is not a smidgen of green or blue in this pigment – therefore it is warm. Note: This is the hottest color on this palette. 

  • WN – PR188 – Scarlet Lake 

Again there is not a smidgen of green or blue in this pigment – therefore it is warm. 

  • MG – PR209 – Quinacridone Red 

This is primary red – therefore it should have no temperature. But I have yet to find a red that does not have a bias. And QR’s bias is slightly toward blue; making it cool, or as cool as a red can get. 

  • DS – PR176 – Carmine 

I see some very-very slight undertones of orange in full strength – therefore it is warm. 

  • MG – PV19 – Quinacridone Violet 

There is no temperature bias in most violets - therefore is neutral. 

  • H – PV15 - Mineral Violet 

There is no temperature bias in most violets - therefore is neutral. 

  • MG – PV37 – Dioxazine Purple 

This Violet has a real blue bias – therefore it is cool. 

  • DS – PB29 – French Ultramarine Blue 

This blue has a slight reddish bias – therefore it is warm. 

  • MG – PB28 – Cobalt Blue 

This is Primary Blue – therefore it should have no temperature. But when placed next to French Ultramarine Blue it is definitely cool. 

  • H – PB16 – Marine Blue 

This is the coolest color on this palette. 

The next question is: why is any of this information important? When you start a project, do you want the image to yell, “Look at me – I am the only thing worth looking at in the room!” or do you want it to whisper, “You’re safe, you have harmony and serenity - you are in your Zen zone?”  

I suggest that you sit down with your favorite beverage and browse through some of ASBA’s catalogs to grasp what I am telling you. Look closely at the paintings that pop off the page or paintings that make you feel good – then evaluate the color temperature of each.  

Last questions: What temperature are you most comfortable to paint with? What temperature does your personality gravitate toward? What temperature do your clients enjoy? Sit and consider some of these questions and become a better painter – first and foremost for yourself. If you are content with what you are painting it will show in your work and your supporters will grow in numbers.