A Lesson on Color Temperature

This is a brief lesson on color temperature.

As a reminder, color temperature is how warm or cool a color appears. For example, red appears warm next to blue. Orange appears warm next to purple. But that’s a deceptively simple explanation. Effective application of color temperature is much more nuanced.

A great exercise to help you understand color temperature is to paint white sand that is partly in light and partly in shadow. The object (white sand) stays the same, but the colors change dramatically. Under the midday sun, the shadows will be all kinds of cool blues and purples. The lights will be warm, shimmering yellows and oranges.

A common mistake would be to use light yellow for the lights and dark yellow for the shadows. But this ignores color temperature. The end result would be flat and lifeless.

Below is a recent example, Gold Coast, Sea and Sand. This painting is all about the temperature contrast between the warm lights and cool shadows.

Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Sea and Sand, 2021
Dan Scott, Gold Coast, Sea and Sand, 2021

Once you understand how color temperature works with white sand, you can move on to more sophisticated applications. Like the subtle color temperature transitions in a portrait. Lilla Perry’s Lady With a Bowl of Violets comes to mind. Steve Huston’s work is also worth checking out.

Lilla Cabot Perry, Lady With a Bowl of Violets, 1910
Lilla Cabot Perry, Lady With a Bowl of Violets, 1910

If you want to learn more about color temperature, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott



Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.