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…


  1. Marcia Gorra-Patek says:

    Thank you, Marvin. I was just thinking about this very thing yesterday. As I was painting this really cool 1965 yellow Chevy pick up truck, I perceived the yellows both cool and warm, creating the form of the truck. I knew from taking your class that I could create the right temperature of the yellows to help develop the form of this truck It was really fun!

    • I’m confused. How can there be warm tones if it’s a cool truck? Seriously though, I don’t think in terms of warm and cool. I would identify the colors I was observing in a more specific way.

  2. Marvin great post and just at the right moment when I’m speculating on this subject. You know, the other day I thought to myself “What if I just get the right colors in the right spot for this apple, then everything will look right on”. Well I tried and for the most part it looked like the apple but the feeling was lacking a bit. So this time I payed attention to the temperature of the apple and its surroundings. And….” Viola, much better”. I think what happens here when you do ask yerself the warm and cool question your eyes become sensitized to that element and seeks for it , ….so then you see it a bit more clearly. Yeah…?? I don’t know…?? just hypothesis.

    • Thanks for the reply. I think asking the temperature question is far too generalized to be helpful in the grand scheme of things. For the best control we need a much more specific approach to color.

  3. Michael Pianta says:

    First of all, great blog! I’ve been reading it for about a week now, but this is my first comment. Anyway, I’m a student myself right now attending the Texas Academy of Figurative Art, and before that I got BFA in painting (I suppose you know what that means), and for a while I’ve been trying to gain complete understanding of the whole color temperature issue.

    What you suggest in this post is basically totally heretical to what I’ve read/learned so far (that color temperature, and learning to see and analyze it, is crucial), so that’s very interesting to me. As I understand it, any color can be described with three attributes: Hue, Value, and Chroma. Temperature is of course not there, because as you say that is a relative term. Necessarily, when we say a certain color needs to be cooler (if, say, we were critiquing a painting) we would actually be saying that one or more of the above attributes needs to change. It would appear that for some people (and I’m one of them, so far) it is just hard to articulate that. I think most often we use “temperature words” (if you will) to describe a situation in which all three of them need to change – we just don’t want or know how to articulate exactly what to change. It is obviously easier to say, “Make it cooler,” than to say “Make it one shade darker, slightly bluer, slightly less chroma.” So to the extent that that’s what’s going on, then you would be right to dismiss it as merely imprecise language.

    But on the other hand, to me there does seem to be something more to this color temperature talk. I may not be able to articulate it exactly, but I’m going to try. It comes out of the necessary recognition that paints are not capable of depicting the full range of values and colors that our eyes can perceive. Therefore we cannot always match the exact hue, value, and chroma of what we are painting, and when that happens we have to become aware of the relationships around that problematic color and match those relationships, not the colors themselves, and this winds up rippling throughout the whole picture. Also, some artists add expressionistic touches, and these are often informed (it seems to me) by ideas of color temperature. So it is that you see a dash of blue or green in the shadow or a dash of yellow beside the highlight – these are surely not the actual colors present on the model, but are deliberate exaggerations of the effect of one area appearing cooler/warmer than another. I feel like this is sometimes done to great effect in the work of some contemporary realists (Dan Thompson comes to mind here).

    Lastly I wonder if there might be cognitive differences between people that could explain why some find this concept useful and others do not? At any rate, it’s very thought provoking stuff. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response Michael. Please feel free to chime in whenever the mood strikes you. I want to engage people and challenge them to think. My take is indeed heretical. It goes against the “rules” of conventional thinking with regards to color. Hopefully you read my blog post on rules. In the not too distant future I will be offering a more precise alternative.

      It’s true that paint can’t come close to replicating the values and colors of reality. I don’t believe that the warm/cool think is necessarily the optimal approach to dealing with that issue.

      Lastly, a lot of artists do a lot of interesting things. I’d say when they’re successful it’s generally in spite of their methodologies, not because of it. This are all fodder for future posts. Thanks again for commenting.

  4. Hello Marvin,
    It was fun to read your post!
    You said it yourself in the very beginning – everything about color is relative: hue, value and chroma. Therefore the warm/cool issue is too, no generalization is possible. If you consider that only the coolest of the blues is an absolutely cool color, (move towards the reds, it gets warmer, move towards the greens, the same thing happens) everything becomes easier to explain: On either side of that blue you’ll get a slightly warmer hue with every step. About the absolute warm color one can discuss – yellow, orange or red. Fact is that adding yellow makes colors warmer.

    • Hi Ilse, thanks for your comment. I believe that I said warm and cool were relative terms, while hue, value and chroma are specifi and measurable. The appearance of color may be relative to what surrounds it, but the hue, value and chroma stay the same. Only our perception may change. As far a adding yellow to warm a color, depending on the yellow, it could also lighten or darken the color or shift the hue. That’s why the term “warm” is too nonspecific to be useful if control over your color is your objective.

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