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Warm And Cool Colors And How To Tell The Difference

Understanding Warm and Cool Colors

Understanding warm and cool colors will greatly help you with your color mixing and give your artwork a more balanced look. Very few of the paint colors you have will be pure primary colors (red, yellow, blue). Most of them will have a warm or cool bias.

You can have a warm red-yellow and a cool green-yellow. Knowing the difference between warm and cool colors and how to mix them with other colors without getting the dreaded mud can save you time, money and frustration.

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Splitting the Color Wheel

Simply put, warm colors bring to mind warm things – the sun or fire = reds, yellows, oranges.

Cool colors bring to mind cool things – a mountain stream, cool grass = blues, greens, purples.

As you can see, the warm and cool colors split the color wheel. If you aren’t familiar with the color wheel I have posts on the Color Wheel and Complementary Colors you can check out.

Colour wheel showing the split between warm and cool colours

So to recap:

Warm Colors ⇒ red, yellow, orange  

Cool Colors  ⇒ blue, green, purple

Warms and Cools in Each Color 

Within each color you can have warms and cools. For example, you can have warm blues and cool blues, warm reds and cool reds.

A warm blue would have a red bias (reddish blue) since red is a warm color.

A cool blue would have a green bias ( greenish blue) since green is a cool color. 

colored boxes showing the warm and cool versions of primary colors

The best way to learn to distinguish the biases of each color you have is to do color swatches. Actually seeing the colors on a sheet of paper can, in most cases, make the color bias a little more obvious and easier to tell which is warm and which is cool. 

If you are still not sure about the color bias you can try adding a little white to your paint. In most cases you will be able to see which color your swatch leans towards.

white, paynes gray and blue gray paint swatches
By adding white to Payne’s Gray you can see the underlying blue color.

Being able to tell the difference makes it easier to use warm and cool colors in your artwork.

Why Is Understanding Warm and Cool Important

Try a little experiment. Take some purple and add a tiny bit of yellow to it. Chances are you will end up with a dull brown, grey or other earthy color…. not a brighter purple. Why?

Well, yellow is the complement of purple (opposite each other on the color wheel). Complementary colors tone down or desaturate each other. 

Purple is a combination or red and blue. So by mixing purple and yellow, you are actually mixing red, blue and yellow, primary colors which will give you grey. A tiny bit of yellow in the purple will therefore dull down your base purple. 

So, if you wanted to mix your own purple, you would have to be careful to use a red and a blue that don’t have any yellow bias in them.

Since manufacturers make many different hues of the same color, it can be difficult to determine which colors to mix to get the result you want.

The best way to get satisfactory results is to make a color swatch. Take notes of which colors you mixed to get purples, oranges and greens and keep them for future reference.

Each time you buy a new color, make new swatches. Get to know your tubes of paint and how they play with other tubes. 

Golden Artist Colors has a great article about warm and cool colors and how they relate to each other. You can read the article here.

colour chart with red, blue and purple squares
Reds and Blues
colour chart showing red, yellow and orange squares
Reds and Yellows

Using Warm and Cool Colors in Your Artwork

Knowing which colors are cool and which are warm is also important for the visual perception of your painting.

Cool colors make things appear further away, while warm colors make things appear closer. So distant mountains would be painted in cool blues or grays and a near by stream and grass would be painted in warmer blues and greens.

blue, red and yellow paint pots with paint brushes and a colour wheel

Balance of Warm and Cool Colors

It seems like a lot of information to absorb but playing around with mixing the various shades will help you grasp the concepts of warm and cool.

Understanding this is necessary if you are going to mix your own shades of paint.

You will be able to mix the exact color you want for any painting and bring more harmony and depth to your pieces by using the right balance of warm and cool colors.

If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comment box below.

Thanks for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Warm And Cool Colors And How To Tell The Difference”

  1. Pattie Parker

    Thank you. Pretty much my introduction to beginning to understand warm and cool colors.
    Especially the advice on mixing to get the pure color you want, and not the muddy version.

  2. I never leave comments but I really appreciate this article and I find it puts really magical artsy concepts into easy, simple terms — the sign of a wonderful teacher. Thank you for writing this!

  3. thanks for this easy to understand format – I have very limited experience with color theory and found your piece easy to apply to my practice

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