Working with Warm & Cool Colors

I recommend that prior to reading this article, you read my blog on Value.

Terms you should know

  • Pure Colors Nothing is added to the color.
  • Tint A tint is a pure color with white added to it.
  • Tone A tone is a pure color with gray added to it.
  • Shade A shade is a pure color with black added to it
  • Primary Colors Using the Subtractive color model, the primary colors are Yellow, Red, and Blue.
  • Secondary Colors are made from two different primary colors. They are Orange, Violet, and Green
  • Tertiary Colors are made from primary and secondary hues. They are Yellow-Green, Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Violet, Blue-Violet, and Blue-Green

Inherent Value

Every color has a related value. This is referred to as inherent value. Here is an example of the relationship between color and its’ value. Next to each color tile is its’ value. Notice how the green and red in this example have the same value. Often when people first see the inherent value of pure colors for the first time, they are surprised at how dark their actual values are.

Knowing the inherent value is important. If you design a piece with similar values, which is then duplicated in grayscale, you can end up with a blob of gray!


Saturation or purity is all the same term. It is the intensity and pureness of a given hue. Another way to think about this is the brightness or dullness of a color. As color becomes desaturated, it appears grayer.

The pure color on the far left and the same color as it progressively becomes de-saturated.

Complementary Contrasts

The concept of complementary contrasts was first developed by Leonardo de Vinci. Complements are opposite each other on the color wheel and represent the highest form of contrast in color harmonies.

If you select equal valued and saturated complementary colors, the hues can appear to vibrate. This actually happens in the eye. Not everyone experiences color vibration. As a result, if you have created a design and people tell you parts of it appear to be vibrating, believe them. By changing the value of one of the colors, or the purity of a color, you should eliminate the vibration.

Color affected by other colors

Each color is affected by the color surrounding it. For example, if you want blue to appear bluer, surround it with its complementary color of orange. If you want a warm color to appear warmer, sound it by a cooler color. Afterimages also happen with color interaction, and yet we learn to tune them out. For more on this concept see the video or my blog on Value.

Every color theory book will tell you where the eye goes first. 

Any decent color theory book will tell you that warm colors advance and cool colors recede, meaning we see warm colors before cool colors. This is good information, and we will take this concept a step further.

Warm colors advance (left), Cool colors recede (right).

The physics of colors

When working with warm and cool colors keep in mind that the first color the eye sees is yellow, then orange, red, yellow-green, green, blue, and then violet. This is physics, pure and simple, and happens so quickly the viewer is often unaware of it. Being aware of this concept while creating a design helps artists to create visual movement.

Please note, we are discussing color used in print, paint, dyes, etc. We are not talking about color and light. For example, think about police car lights. The idea is that when in use, you need to see the lights, even on a sunny day at noon.  This has a lot to do with the strobing light used in the lights fixtures.

To make this concept work

There needs to be a noticeable difference in the purity of the main color and the colors surrounding it.

The tile on the left is working, the tile on the right is not working.

There needs to be a noticeable difference in the value of the color surrounding the main color.

The tile on the left is not working, the tile on the right is working.

Saturation & Value Contrast Counts

Which colors appear to advance first?

The yellow-green tile on the right is the first color you see first. Let’s analyze the brown tile on the left. This hue is a shade of orange, as demonstrated in the screenshot. So, as we see orange before yellow-green, why did you see the yellow-green first? First, it has to d with the purity of the two colors. The yellow-green is pure, whereas the orange tile is not pure having black added to it to create a shade.

Second, the inherent value of the orange tile is very close to the inherent value of the color surrounding it. As you can see, with the inherent value of the yellow-green tile there is a noticeable difference between its’ value and the value of the color surrounding it.

High Color Contrast & Value

You can have high color contrast and high contrast value. Both high color contrast and high contrast value have a lot of movement/energy. The example on the left is high color contrast. On the right is the same example converted to grayscale, showing that it is high contrast value too.

High Color Contrast on the left and High Contrast Value on the right.

As we have seen in the value article, a piece can have high color contrast and not have high contrast value. The color is high color contrast, but the value is low-key.

Making yellow-green warm or cool

In the Value video and blog, we looked at afterimages where we discussed how colors affect the colors surrounding them. We also explored how to make warm colors appear warmer and cool colors appear cooler. Let’s revisit those concepts with the color yellow-green. 

 Yellow-green is a Tertiary color meaning a color made from combining primary and secondary colors. Tertiary colors behave like a warm color or a cool color depending on the type of color(s) surrounding it. We will concentrate on yellow-green as it is in the middle of the high color contrast color spectrum.

To make it appear warm, place a cooler color around it such as green, blue, or violet.

To make it appear cooler, place a warmer color around it such as yellow, orange, or red.

Why does this work?

When yellow-green is surrounded by a warmer color, the surrounding colors push the green forward (of the yellow-green). When yellow-green is surrounded by a cooler color the surrounding colors push the yellow forward (of the yellow-green). This works with other tertiary colors to varying degrees.

Why are these concepts important?

How can these concepts work to your advantage? Let’s say you need some text to stand out from the rest of the layout. Using a warm, purer, saturated hue on the text, placed on a background that is high in value contrast from the text hue will automatically draw the viewer’s eye to the text first. For an added effect the background color should be a cool hue.

Let’s look at a few examples of how artists have used this concept to their advantage. The work we are looking at was created in the early part of the 20th century. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, color theory was quickly developing, while incorporating science. 

When looking at this work, don’t underestimate what these artists were doing. They broke with the long-standing traditions of color used for centuries before their creation. The Impressionists, who were prominent during the 1870s and 1880s were the first group of artists to embrace color theory and science.

Used in the Fine Arts

Leon Kroll successfully created a circular flow based on color placement and value (below). Your eye comes in at the yellow and orange fruit. It then travels up the left, red curtain. Next, the eye travels over to the opposite red curtain via the snowy, white rooftops (value). Last the viewer is lead back t the fruit bowl down the right, red curtain.

Notice how Kroll stops the yellow buildings with violet buildings from popping in front of the fruit and curtains by using lowing the saturations of those hues.

By flooding the picture plane with a sea of yellow and supporting it with predominately warm hues, Franz Marc successfully makes the viewer read the cool colors as highlights. He creates a spiral flow by using the green in the background, through the blue tail, into the horse’s mane.

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