Learn to Draw > Warm and cold colors


The Chinese express their advice more poetically: "In every colored picture one color should be queen. All other colors should be subservient to her so that she appears in all her splendor." By this is meant that all colors other than the "queen," the dominant color, should show a certain tendency towards the complementary, but should still appear dull and impure against the pure, dominant color. In this way the picture is given a unified effect, and is concentrated on the essential, marked in the dominant color.

If the surrounding color is only neutral gray it inclines in effect towards the color complementary to the dominant one. The well-known example is illustrated here: the red, green, and orange frames make the gray windows green-gray, reddishgray, and violet-gray respectively.



Above: Winter Landscape at Twilight Below: the same landscape after an orangecolored lamp is lit All this shows that the human eye cannot see colors "objectively"; it always sees one color in relation to at least one other color; in this it is unlike the ear, which in some musically developed people retains absolute pitch.

Such people can define a bird call in the exactly right notes, whether they hear it quite isolated or through the bird chorus of a wood in springtime. It is impossible to register color independently in the same way.

Even the perception of cold and warm colors is subjective. It is like dipping a hand into water, first at 60 degrees, then at 50 degrees, when the latter feels cold; but if the hand is first dipped at 40 degrees, the water at 50 degrees seems warm.

The diagram shows the general division of the circle into warm and cold colors, but in practice they can work out quite differently. It is quite possible to talk of a cold yellow or red, although these are the colors of warmth and fire as against the blue of shadows and ice.

Blue can look warm if it is mixed, and stands in contrast to a red bordering on violet or a light, greenish yellow or "cold" violet-gray.

The psychological effects of color work in the same way. Warm colors seem to approach the beholder, cold to recede and make the space larger. Red reduces space and has an oppressive effect, orange is aggressive and exciting, yellow is quieter and more cheerful. Green is the most neutral from this point of view.

None of these effects is noticeable except in large areas. A picture which is in one color tone can give its mood to the subject. A "lady in blue" has by its color alone quite a different effect from a picture of a woman done in tones of red. But all radiations of color change in relation to others and can turn into their opposites-or remain without any positive effect.

Cool and warm color chart. The cool colors range from blue-green to alizarin red; warm from yellow-green to cadmium red It may be questionable policy to construct a picture entirely of the psychological effects of color, but it is even more dangerous to do it according to preconceived theories, as is the practice of some artists.

The adherents of some sects try to arouse spirituality by the use of pure colors, excluding any tendency towards gray. The effect does not work on people not spiritually prepared, and this is why such unworldly art is questionable.

We expect a direct impact from all art; it should not require a special mental or spiritual education. This is not the same thing as using certain scientific facts about optics, as the Pointillists did. They built up their color surfaces according to fundamental optical laws out of small dots of pure color.

The pictures of the greatest exponents of pointillism, like Segantini or Si,gnac, have a direct appeal. Their scientific scaffold is not what the beholder notices, he sees merely the artistic effect.

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Color as substance

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