Warm and Cool- The Exciting Game Without Any Logic!

Hit or Miss Color Mixing–You Bet!

“The most confusing part of painting is mixing color.” How many times have you heard that?

Did you ever see the movie Bang The Drum Slowly? It’s the first time I ever saw Robert De Niro. He was amazing. The movie’s based on a novel by Mark Harris about a group of major league baseball players. What impressed me the most was actually a very minor part of the movie. The ball players would play a form of poker called TEGWAR. It stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

TEGWAR is a con game. The baseball players would sit in their hotel lobby and play. Eventually, some unsuspecting and starstruck fan would be tricked into joining them. The object of the game was to cheat the poor fellow out of as much of his money as possible. If the fan thought he had the best hand, one of the players would make up a new rule and proclaim himself to be the winner. For example, in TEGWAR a Full House or a Flush would lose to a Red Rooster or a Butchered Hog. The fan, even though he had no idea of what was going on, was willing to bow to the lack of logic because he wanted to fit in and was too embarrassed to admit that he was clueless. TEGWAR reminds me a lot of, what I consider to be, the most perplexing concept in painting: Warm and Cool.

Many artists claim the key to painting is in understanding warm and cool color relationships. This is their compass for navigating through color space. However, warm and cool are relative terms, and are therefore imprecise. It’s vague language, at best, for describing temperature–whether color or room. What’s warm to an Eskimo is extremely cool to a Floridian. If you wanted the room cooler, and asked each to adjust the thermostat, you’d get very different settings. If you wanted to be precise, you could ask either one to set the thermostat to 68°.

Adjusting colors, via warm and cool, makes no sense to me. If you want to modify a color, specify your target mixture. What exactly does “to cool a color” mean? It’s very confusing. Blue is a cool color. Does that mean you add blue to cool either yellow, red, green, purple or orange?

Warm and cool are comparative terms. Green is cool when compared to yellow but warm when compared to blue. You can have cool yellows and warm blues. Really!?! To warm a purple, you could add a cool red. If you want to warm a color should you add either red, yellow, orange, purple or green? Sometimes even a blue can warm another blue.

To further confuse the issue, consider the concept of Simultaneous Contrast, the brainchild of French chemist Michel Chevreul. He said that our perception of a color is biased by what surrounds it. A middle value gray appears darker against white but lighter against black. A neutral gray appears to have a blue-green cast when surrounded by red.

As human beings we seek balance: hot tea in the winter; iced tea in the summer. To effect visual balance, your brain superimposes the compliment of any color you see, over itself. The compliment of a larger field will influence the appearance of a smaller note. That explains why gray looks blue-green against red. (Blue-green and red are optical compliments.) Hold a red card against a white wall. Stare at the card for 30 seconds. While keeping your gaze on the same spot, quickly pull the card away and you’ll see a blue-green after image. The same thing holds true for values. Do the same experiment using a high contrast black and white image, and the values will reverse.

Because of simultaneous contrast, if you place a neutral gray square in the center of a blue field, it will appear to have a slight orange cast. In warm/cool-speak, the neutral grey is warm. If you’re a portrait artist and add a neutral gray to a flesh tone, in warm/cool-speak, it would be considered cool. So gray warms cool colors and cools warm colors? Warming or cooling implies a change in the temperature, which means a shift in hue, but when you properly gray down a color, the hue doesn’t shift at all. Only the intensity is affected.

Does it make any sense to use warm and cool to describe changes in both hue and intensity? How could anyone ever know what you’re talking about? How would you even know what you’re talking about? Can you name one example of amorphous guidelines leading to a specific result? The only one that pops into my mind is TEGWAR, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules!

Since we’re talking baseball, what about Abbott and Costello’s, vaudeville comedy routine, Who’s on First? Bud Abbott tries to tell Lou Costello the nicknames of baseball players. Abbott informs Costello that the first baseman is Who, What is the name of the second baseman and I Don’t Know is playing third. It’s hysterically funny to see just how confused and frustrated Costello gets because he can’t understand that the answer to the question: Who’s on first? is the declarative statement: Who’s on first! Confusion isn’t so amusing when you’re trying to mix up a color and all that come to mind is, “I Don’t Know!”…third base!

Until next time…