As painters, we hear the phrase “warm and cool colors” all of the time. It is almost like a mantra in our world. I don’t like it, which is unusual. Why don’t I like the phrase? Because it and the conversations around it are confusing. I also believe that it is overused and not well understood, especially for those early in their painting journey.
The confusion around warm and cool colors starts with the phrase being used in two different painting arenas.
- We often refer to different hues on the color wheel as being warm and others being cool. As displayed below, it is relatively easy to identify the warm colors as: red, orange and yellow; the cool colors as: green, blue and purple. I like to call this the BIG PICTURE use of warm and cool colors. In painting, this use of warm and cool colors is applied in various ways, such as: creating depth, having a balanced palette of colors, directing a focal area in a painting, creating different moods, etc. In this arena, the concept is fairly clear on how to use it, though it does need study and practice.
- In the second painting arena where many artists use the phrase “warm and cool colors,” the confusion becomes significant. This is when we use the phrase while explaining which tubes of paint we used to mix a color. Teachers and other artists often refer to primary colors as being warm or cool when they say, “I used a cool-red or a warm-blue here on this flower, etc.” First of all, aren’t the phrases “cool-red” and “warm-blue” oxymorons? How can a red be cool or a blue be warm? Didn’t you just say above that red is a warm color and blue is a cool color? It’s head scratcher and it doesn’t make sense.
Replace Warm and Cool Colors with Color Bias:
What is color bias? What do I mean when I use it?
Because of the confusion just described, a few years ago I started using the phrase “color bias” with my color students. It has helped clarify a lot of miss-understanding and made color mixing much less frustrating. It has also opened the door to discovering the joy of mixing color.
Color bias refers to the additional hue that a primary color (I am only going to refer to primary colors in this post), carries with its base hue. For example, we often add an adjective when describing a color for a piece of clothing, a car, the sky, a paint color, etc. We will say that someone just bought a green-blue car or that they are wearing an orange-red sweater. These descriptors immediately help us to visualize the “color bias” of that primary color. In our everyday world, we don’t say, “She is wearing a lovely warm-yellow dress, do we?”
Our paint manufacturers have given us incredible access to many different tubes of paint. However, it is important to know that nearly every primary color of red, blue and yellow carries an additional color. Very few primary tubes of paint are pure hues. When you review the above graphic, you see the color adjectives I use when describing the primary colors in the second row: green-yellow, orange-yellow (or red-yellow), blue-red and orange-red, and green-blue and red-blue. Using these color adjectives in front of your primary colors, removes confusion and more accurately describes the paint you are using. This, in turn, becomes critical when choosing the tubes of paint you need to mix a particular hue.
Already, is the concept of color bias less confusing? I hope so. You no longer have to wonder if a yellow is warm or cool or the temperature of your reds and blues!
Why is Color Bias so Important When Mixing Color?
Seeing the color bias in your primary colors is key to mixing clean or muddy colors. Why is this true?
You know that complementary colors cancel each other out when they are mixed. For example, when you mix some green with a red, the red immediately starts to dull and looses its intensity as shown in the color swatches below. On the left, the red becomes less intense or duller because a little of the green has been mixed with it. The same is true on the opposite end where you see how the green is less bright because its complementary red has been mixed with it. You have most likely experienced this with the other complementary pairs of yellow and purple, and blue and orange.
So how does this apply to understanding the concept of color bias?
If you mix and green-blue with a green-yellow, will the resulting green be dull or bright?
Conversely, if you mix a red-blue with an orange-yellow, will the mixed green be bright or dull? The color chart below demonstrates the results. In the first row, I have mixed a green-yellow with a green-blue. In the second row, you can see the stark difference when I mix a orange-yellow with a red-blue. Fun, eh?!You surmised that the green-blue mixed with the green-yellow is going to produce a bright spring-like green. This is because neither the blue nor the yellow have any color bias of RED in them. Whereas, when the red-blue is mixed with the orange-yellow, the green is going to be dull because red, its complement, resides in both of the original blue and yellow. To learn more about mixing greens, feel free to download the free “Mix Greens with Ease,” e-book that is available in the upper right column of this blog. I have also written about it at Mix Greens Easily Without Using Tubes of Green Paint.
Isn’t this easier to understand versus using the adjectives of warm and cool? Do you see how confusing it is when someone says, “Mix a cool-blue with a cool-yellow to create a bright green.” In addition, when artists start talking about BLUE and whether it is cool or warm, we are not in agreement. I discuss this in my post Is the Temperature of Blue, Warm or Cool?
Using the concept of color bias is clarifying. I love watching light bulbs go off with my students as they begin to understand that color mixing isn’t so overwhelming and that there is logic to it! Using a temperature to describe the additional hue within a primary color muddies the water, besides you cannot SEE the warm or the cool of the primary color. LOL!
My blog post title suggests that we stop using the phrase “warm and cool colors” all together. Actually, it is fine to use it when we are referring to the entire color wheel at large as discussed in point #1. Let’s stop using it when explaining the color bias of a tube of paint we are using.
My online video course dives into the concept of color bias. You are welcome to see a review of it at: Acrylic Color Mixing Made Easy! Note that I use acrylics in this course, but oil and watercolor painters can learn the color principles as well. Even fabric artists have benefited from the class! Here are a few testimonials from painters who have taken this online class:
Your class cleared up questions I had that were not answered in the long semester of color theory that I took!
Carol, thank you again. I’m learning so much about color and how to mix it from you!
Hi Carol, I’ve just discovered you. Your explanations of color theory are easy to understand and so informative.
Thank you Carol for teaching me this. I have often been frustrated when mixing a color. Now all I have to do is remember which bias my paints are and then I should be able to deliberately mix a bright or dull color. Thank you, thank you.
P.S. If you like this post and find it helpful, I’d love it if you’d pass it on via email or social media. You can use the buttons at the top and bottom of this post to share it.
- What are the Top Color Mixing Challenges?
- Warm and Cool Colors Often Don’t Mix
- How Do Artists Know if a Color is Warm or Cool? Important Color Theory Tip