Sunday, November 2, 2014

Value and Temperature (Or How Do I Choose My Colors?)

       I've recently had a few inquiries about how I use color or how I choose my colors in my paintings. This might seem like a simple question, but the simplest sounding questions are often the most complex. Here's one of the first inquiries I had on this topic:

Hi Rita, I am looking forward to your demo for PSST in. January. Can you tell me what you plan to cover in the mini-workshop and at what level? I don't need a basic course but would be interested in leaning more about how you use color in your work. Thanks so much! Kathy

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for asking! I tailor my workshops to whoever is there, from beginner to advanced. In my 30+ years of using pastel, I've learned just about all the technical ins and outs. I teach best with demos, where I explain what I'm doing as I do it (usually) and then answer questions throughout the rest of the workshop and one-on-one advice.

I can give you a head-start tip on "color" by saying that I've gotten so good (in others' opinions) with color by not thinking in terms of color (hue), but of value and temperature. "Value is more important than color" is one of my mantras that I learned from several other experienced artists, and I like to add "...and temperature" (cooler or warmer) because really, if you have the value and the temperature correct in all areas of your painting, the whole thing will work regardless of color. Even if you only have value correct it will work, but with temperature I'm able to achieve that feeling of intense warm light in my current work. (I was gratified to hear in a recent workshop I took from Clayton Beck III, that he's a strong proponent of 'value and temperature' in his work and in his teaching!)

"Is This Seat Taken?" in grayscale (value scale)

"Is This Seat Taken?"
 But in contrast to that, my more recent workshop with Casey Klahn taught me that it's ok for color to have nothing to do with value or temperature, but to love color for it's own sake. Although I believe he has an innate master's grasp of value, he seems to put more emphasis on the playful and instinctual use of color, and his work accentuates intensity vs. neutrality, plus an amazing compositional genius!

(Can you tell I love learning too! ;)
Well, sorry for the long response. Look forward to meeting you in January!

To add to that, It has taken me the last twelve years of conscious effort improving my artwork (beyond the ordinary effort of copying someone's photo of their grandkids) to understand the importance of value and temperature on the effect of light and color. Honestly it's only been the last five years or so that I've even been aware of this relationship enough to use it and enhance these effects in my work.

To put it in basic terms, "Value" means the relative lightness or darkness of a color. "Temperature" means how warm or cool the color is. For example, the warm colors are red and yellow (think 'fire' and 'sun') so the warmest color really is orange (red and yellow combined.) The coolest color (think ice, or arctic water) is blue. All the colors between these are what I call 'neutral', for lack of a better term for a color that is in between warm and cool. 

Picture a color wheel:
You see that orange and blue are compliments (meaning they are on opposite sides of the wheel.) All the colors closer to the orange are warmer, and all the colors closer to the blue are cooler. Blue-green is cooler than yellow-green. Red-orange is warmer than red-violet. Etc.

This gets more vague as the colors get in to true neutrals (greyed colors) meaning colors that have been toned down with their compliment (Aak! I can't even find a decent color wheel online that shows this!) but if you remember that any color that is a green or a violet is going to be cooler than any reds or yellows, and warmer than any blues. THIS is why I LOVE greens and violets! They are SO beautiful in shadows, where there's reflected warm light shining into cool shadow colors. They can be warm (compared to cooler blues) or cool (compared to warmer reds or yellows.)

Having worked so long with subjects that are in sunlight, I'm used to working with the "warm light, cool shadows" precept. There is also the "cool light, warm shadows" scheme, which is prevalent among artist who prefer north light windows in studio work, or overcast, cloudy light outdoors, which will frequently be a cooler light. There's enough of that subject for another book, so I won't elaborate here! (One of my paintings "Marjoram" does illustrate this cool light/warm shadows concept pretty well) :

Reflected light, if you noticed the mention above, is another subject worth a long post of it's own!

Here's a pic of Maggie Price's pastel box, arranged by an x/y value/temerature scale. This is the photo I took to arrange my own box the same way
Notice the cool colors at the bottom and the warm colors towards the top.

Here's my own new studio set of Terry Ludwigs in my Mike Mahon box. I like my warm colors on the bottom and cool colors at the top. Violets and greens are in between, mixed up by how relatively cool or warm they are. If you see some that look out of place, it's because I organized this by value first, each row, then by temperature. Plus I have my Diane Townsend Terrage pastels in the seams of the foam inserts, and my Great American Artworks iridescents at the far right. For travel I use my Heilman box (like Maggie's) where I have my colors laying down flat and arranged a lot like hers!

Let me know if this helps you! :)



  1. Fantastic explanation of the use of value and temperature!

  2. “Nice Post. It’s really a very good article. I noticed all your important points. Thanks"
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  3. Thank you so very much, so well explained! I have only painted in watercolur before trying pastell and have never really thought of tone and temperature being so important before-it is finally now when I have begun my pasteljourney that I have slowly started to grasp the importance of tone and temperature over colour. And you explained that so well I finally ”got it”😃👍!

    1. You're very welcome! I'm glad you got a lot out of reading this. :)


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