Colour · Painting · Painting Techniques

What does Temperature Mean in Artwork?

Temperature and mood are two words that can crop up in art classes, magazines and books but what do these terms mean?  These terms are usually used in relation to the use of colour in artwork.


Colours suggest warmth or coolness and this is known as ‘temperature’ which is also used in photography.  Yellows, oranges, reds and pinks are considered ‘warm’, green, blues and violets are considered ‘cool’.  Warm colours feel happy, bright and vibrant, cooler colours can feel moody, still or distant in artwork.

However, temperature is not as simple as just dividing up colours into warm and cool. There is such a thing as a ‘cool’ orange and a ‘warm’ orange.  To teach this idea I sometimes ask my learners to make a warm to cool scale of one colour.  Warm and cool can be relative to the hue next to it.

How can I use temperature in art?

Depth – Using cooler colours to make objects or subjects recede into the distance.

Contrast – Using cool and warm colours next to one another.

Focal points – A cool coloured object or subject against a warm background can bring the eye into a piece of artwork.

Blending – Warm colours used together and cool colours used together will create smooth graduations and create a ‘flow’ for the observer without interruption.

Temperature paintings
Van Gogh – ‘Sunflowers’ (left) – uses warm colours and Gwen John ‘The Convalescent’ – uses cooler colours giving them both very different moods.

To learn about temperature try painting with all the ‘warm’ colours and all the ‘cool’ colours and see the difference.

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