Image from the Cassiopeia Super Nova exploding 340 million years ago
taken from the James Webb Telescope
Anyone who’s seen my work knows how important color is to me. Anyone who has created any art understands the importance of color as part of their choices. A viewer can appreciate the impact of color choices within a piece. Color influences our taste in art, as well as, clothing, furniture, cars, and the walls we live within. I spend a lot of time considering my color choices. Even though I may drip, splatter, collage, layer, and pool color, it may look arbitrary, but it’s not. While I may allow paint to drip, I control where it drips and how those drips work within the overall composition, for example.
So, there’s something inherently wrong about how I initially learned color and subsequently teach color. Not in regards to primary, complimentary, or tertiary palettes, but how color is perceived.
Fire Dance, 1891
By Paul Gauguin
Oil on canvas
Colors have a temperate nature. Red, orange, and yellow invoke warmth, while green, blue, and violet are seen as cool colors. This concept has been ingrained into our collective subconscious from seasonal fashion trends to consumer packaging. Ok, earthtones are excluded! Take Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for example, advertisers use adjectives to reenforce an already skewed principle when it comes to the warmth of the orange packaging. Things like Frank’s Red Hot or the afore mentioned Flam’n Hot Cheetos use red and orange in their packaging while items like Cool Mint Listerine use blue to invoke feelings of crisp clean refreshment. What’s wrong with this whole color concept is that science opposes this widely held belief. Any physicist can chime in now, because they know this already.
Image of midday sun
The Sun, 1916
By Edvard Munch
Oil on canvas
In regards to art versus science, let me explain a couple basic truths. Let’s think about the batch of “warm” colors. The yellow glow of a campfire is indeed hot, you could roast some marshmallows, boil water for coffee, or just take the chill out of the night. The heating coils on an electric stove glow red; molten metal, or even molten lava from deep within the earth’s scorching core are orange and red hues. Scientifically, it’s just the start of how light is perceived. White is even hotter than yellow, orange or red. Again, think of the sun, it’s white hot and probably one of the hottest entities in our universe. The temperature of a flash of lightening has been measured by scientist as having heat greater than the surface of the sun. The flash of a nuclear detonation has been measured by multiple degrees of the surface of the sun. Yet, most folks visually depict ice and snow with a heavy base of whites and off whites. Truth is, snow is the color of the reflected light that it absorbs.
Study of Sky, Setting Sun, 1849
By Eugene Delacriox
Oil on canvas
So many artists use every shade of blue, violet, and green to depict water or the lushness of night, which is typically cooler than mid-day. Thus, is part of the color wheel is often used by artists to portray elements that trigger an emotional response of a coolness.
Let There Be Light Painting, 2018
By Drunken Miro
Acrylic on panel
The Legend of Volcanoes, 1940
By Jesus Helguera
Oil on canvas
I’ve touched on red hot, and white hot, are you ready for blue hot? We’ll get to that in moment. Another way to think about color temperature is the way we see the appearance of light provided by a light bulb. It is measured in degrees of Kelvin (K), which is a universal unit of thermodynamic temperature and it ranges from a scale of 1,000 to 10,000. The lower the degrees in Kelvin, the warmer the light. So, 1000 K to 2500 K you tend to get the red orange glow of candlelight. 2500 K to 4000 K you get the warm yellow of incandescent light. Bright white light or overcast daylight is somewhere around 5000 K to 6500 K. Blue light on a clear day is around 7500 K to 10000 K. The hottest temperature we perceive on the color spectrum is blue, well violet blue, if you’re keeping score. Thus, blue flames are hotter than yellow and orange flames. Again, let’s think about our universe. Let’s use our understanding of temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (F). Obviously, a sunny warm day at 75 ̊F is nice, at 100 ̊F not so much. The surface of the white hot sun is about 10,000 ̊F. A lightning bolt can register temps of 50,000 ̊F. A controlled nuclear fusion is about 150,000 ̊F. And Alas, that big beautiful purplish blue super nova, that’s 1,800,000,032 ̊F. For good measure, the estimated temperature of the Big Bang is around 10,000,000,000 ̊F. I’m pretty sure whatever color that was, isn’t invented yet, but I’m certain there was blue and purple in there somewhere.
Artist Rendition of a Super Nova based on images taken by the Hubble Telescope
Technically, I guess I didn’t learn color theory wrong, it’s more semantics. Red, orange, and yellow are indeed “warm,” but for the record, not as “warm” as green, blue-green, or violet.
All this color talk and I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I haven’t talked about the psychology of color and how that affects art. We’ll save that for another post.