Clouds and Color Temperature


Lately, my painting has focused mainly on the complexity of color temperature. I’ve been seeking a way to simplify my initial block-in by concentrating on color temperature as the key to unlocking the nature of my subject. Color temperature is one of the most difficult things to differentiate in a subject rendered from life. Value is something more easily understood but temperature is the thing that really gives vitality and life to a painting. Henri states in The Art Spirit, “Form can be modeled in black and white, but there are infinitely greater possibilities in modeling through warmness and coolness of color.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.62.)

In my last blog post on color temperature, I wrote about Sargent’s use of a simplified value structure evident in his mural work at the Museum of Fine Art Boston and the Boston Public Library. This two value structure in the lights and in the shadow can later be built upon.  Within this two value structure, Sargent focuses on a simplified temperature relationship, where a cool and a warm balance one another on the light side and on the shadow side of the subject. A cool and a warm linked to two values. This simple beginning used in the murals gives them life prior to their being fully rendered.

I have also observed this simple structure of value and temperature in clouds. It is especially evident in denser lower clouds such as a cumulus cloud. There is great form in these clouds since they are low enough to receive directional light from the sun giving them an evident light side and shadow side. Although there is this evident form, clouds remain primarily unified as compared to the general landscape. There is a subtle shift of value but most of its form is achieved through color temperature.

By observing these cumulus clouds, I have found that there is basically two values and two temperatures on the light side as well as the shadow side. The denser the cloud the more evident this observation is. On a large near cloud the lights are cool with a warmer half-tone and the shadows are cool with warmer reflected light.  On the shadow side-a cloud is cooler along the shadow edge and in the denser areas of the cloud where light cannot penetrate the density. Areas that appear warm on the underside are areas of less density where some of the sun is filtering through. The same holds true for the light side- the denser the cloud the more brilliant the light side and in the less dense areas, a warmer tone  will appear.  That is why very thin clouds will appear as a general warm tone.  These observations are for near clouds and it must be noted that for far clouds  the temperature is reversed- the lights slowly move toward the warm as they approach the horizon line. There is also less differentiation toward the horizon line- the values become closer still.

One can also observe that a cloud does not stand alone and it is perfectly unified with the sky. Where a cloud is warm along an edge the sky presents a cool and where the cloud is cool along the edge the sky presents a warm. The ever changing flux between a constantly shifting temperature allows for a clear presentation of form with the most variety possible. “At times secreted in the appearance of a simple tone there is a gamut of color, a shifting across the spectrum which keeps the thing alive, illusive, and creates the mystery of depth.”(Ibid.,p.42). Allowing temperature to be a guiding principle early on creates a simple feeling of form and identifies the quality of light enabling the artist to concentrate on the power of the image.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

3 thoughts on “Clouds and Color Temperature”

  1. Thanks for sharing your observations and knowledge, so clearly explained, interesting and insightful. You really get my mind churning about making more effective use of the things you write about (in this case color temperature) in my own art.

  2. Judith,

    Greetings from Roccalvecce! From our terrace we can see every clould ever formed. Since it just rained I can see as far as Monte well as every sheep in the meadow across the valley.

    I can’t comment on this essay regarding color temperature because I’ve never painted. However, I can comment on the intensity of your vision. In short, it makes me profoundly envious. As Henri might have said, ‘the intensity of the vision is the point of art’.

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