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.