The other evening Charles Cecil came to our open studio and, as usual, had a few things to say. One of the more interesting was a discussion on the use of temperature terminology when critiquing painting.

According to Charles, critiquing painting using the terms ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ was never done in R. H. Ives Gammell’s studio (where he studied) and is less accurate than describing the actual hue, i.e. too blue, too yellow, etc.

I find that using temperature to describe hue is much easier but not necessarily better. As a teacher, you get an immediate visceral reaction if something is too warm or too cool and it takes a second longer to figure out what the exact hue is. On the other hand, it is, at the end, much more helpful to the student both in the moment, and also in the long term to think in terms of hues and not temperature.

Charles’ exact words on the subject can’t be repeated on a family blog such as this, but I think he has a good point. At any rate, I’m now trying to get back into the habit of correcting student’s work by using hue and not temperature.

Edit: It was just pointed out to me that a quick search of Google books turns up a number of pre-1900 writings on art (notably Eastlake) which mention warm and cool, I still think it is less precise.


  1. Hi Marc:

    I studied with Gammell from 1979-80. If memory serves me, he was, at least with me, in the habit of saying “warm” and “cool.” Occasionally he would comment on hue, but I mostly remember the other. I have found that color perception can be and usually is subjective up to a point. In fact, my right eye sees color warmer, my left, cooler.

    I believe it was DeCamp who suggested that you can paint something just about any color, so long as the values are just.

    Best Regards and say hello to Charles

    Carl Samson

  2. The use of warm and cool is not a good thing when dealing with painting.
    Munsell uses hue, value and chroma to describe color space, which has three dimensions.
    I think this is the best way to describe colors and there relationships to one another.

    What hue is it? At what value and chroma? That’s the questions I ask myself.

  3. Thanks Carl, I’ll tell Charles when I see him, and thanks for the info on Gammell. I think DeCamp has a point, but great colorists are such a joy to look at.

    @Jeff, I guess Munsell neatly tackles the problem, sooner or later I’ll take the time to study it.

  4. “In fact, my right eye sees color warmer, my left, cooler.”
    -Same goes for me Carl.

    I can self adjust a bit, depending upon how many expressos I’ve had. 🙂

  5. In discussing color, it seems to me useful to distinguish between matters of theory and matters of practice. A theoretical understanding of pure color interacting under ideal conditions can inform the practical handling of specific pigments in real world mixtures. Of course as every painter knows, the ideal does not easily map to the real, and mixtures generally don’t add up to the sum of their parts. Grain size and faceting, inert ingredients and impurities, oil absorption and refractive index all come into play in complex ways that only become predictable (and therefore manipulable) after years of experience.

    Temperature can be useful in discussing general aspects of color as it relates to theory, as well as in specific applications of pigment, e.g. the cooling function of the turbid medium effect, both in atmospheric perspective and in paint laminates. Helmut Ruhmann, the art conservator, pointed out how Rubens successfully exploited the turbid medium effect in the painting of flesh tones. Such a discussion depends on an understanding of the concept of temperature.

    I suppose that one could say that when you are talking about temperature or hue, you are dealing in two different orders of abstraction. It seems to me that both have their uses.

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