Color Temperature and The Super Color

One of the most difficult phenomena to discern is color temperature. Many contemporary paintings are primarily cool or primarily warm but when one observers some of the great paintings of the masters there is a wonderful balance in temperature. Robert Henri states in The Art Spirit that, “the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the oppositions of grave colors with bright colors. If all the colors are bright there is no brightness.”(p.57) The same could be said, if all the colors are cool ( or warm) there is no luminosity and the “living” element seems to be missing.

As part of my practice before I begin a painting, I seek two things- an overall color temperature map and an idea of the super color. First I identify the super color. By super color, I refer to that overall color that encompasses the subject and the space. It will influence all the individual colors of the objects- it is the primary color of the light, the identifying color of the entire composition. Henri describes it as such, “there is a color over all colors which unites them and which is more important than the individual colors. At sunset the sun glows. The color of the grasses, figures and the houses may be lighter or darker or different, but over each there is the sunset glow.” (Ibid.,p.58)

Identifying the color of the light itself will influence the color temperature of the subject. So when I map out the color temperature, I always keep this in mind. If  I am working under north light, I might observe the following: the general light is cool ( violet, blue or cool green) so the pattern might be- lights cool; half tones warmer; shadow edge cool; shadow warm; reflected light cool; and the highlight being a mirror of the source itself will be cool. Other things to remember are that reflected light mimics the general light source and contrary to this- the reflected light that occurs when illuminated flesh reflects back into the shadow area is warm; and where flesh meets flesh, that dark accent will also be warm. This map reflects my belief that we must first have an understanding of what can happen and then seek through observation of a specific situation what is actually occurring before us. It is difficult to see what one has no knowledge of. One must merge what one knows with what one sees. My friend, Deane Keller wrote in The Draftsman’s Handbook -”Theory- the way things should work- must submit to the way things actually work- but both make their contribution.” (p.25) When one has knowledge of  scientific phenomena, then one can look for it in nature. When one does not fully understand what occurs then it is difficult to observe it. How many landscapes were painted prior to Jules Breton or Monet that did not recognize blue shadows ( the reflection from the dome of the sky) in nature?

Observation is key to recognizing the variations in color temperature. The map is theory and must submit to nature but it remains an important expression of the variety necessary to achieve “luminosity” and a sense of the “living” element.

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4 thoughts on “Color Temperature and The Super Color

  1. Pingback: Value vs. Temperature

  2. Could you explain this further. “Other things to remember are that reflected light mimics the general light source and contrary to this- the reflected light that occurs when illuminated flesh reflects back into the shadow area is warm; and where flesh meets flesh, that dark accent will also be warm”

    • Judith, Reflected light is that part of the shadow that is receiving non-direct light. It is a reflection of the light source but not as strong- say my light source is north light, then the reflected light will be cool and carry a blue or violet color. This only remains true if the reflected light is in a sense unimpeded by say, drapery, a floor or another part of the flesh, etc. If it is drapery, the reflected light will take on that color- if the drape is say, red, the reflected light will take on this color red. If it is say, a floor that is green- as the light comes through a window and hits the floor and bounces up into the flesh, the flesh will take on this color of green. But if the light hits another part of the flesh and bounces back into the shadow, this reflected light will take on a warm color, ie., orange, red ect. The closer the two parts of the figure are together, the more warm and intense this reflected light will be. If two parts of the flesh are touching, there will be a dark accent at the juncture and it will be warm. I hope this clarifies some things.

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