What is a warm color vs cool color?

These articles on what is a warm color vs what is a cool color are always the shittiest art articles because every time you ask someone to explain it to you, they’re still confused on the topic. So my goal is for you to be able to answer a child. If a child comes up to you and says “what’s the difference between a warm color and a cool color?,” you should be able to answer.

So here goes. A warm color can burn you. You use the cool color to cool you off. How’s that for simplicity?

Artists. Always making things more complicated than they have to be.

I’m the opposite. If you can’t explain it to a child, then you need to go back and relearn it.

Now, here’s where it gets a little bit more complicated. There’s also a part II of this definition. For the warm color vs cool color, it’s not only burn you or cool you off. A warm color will pop forward in a painting whereas a cool color will appear farther back.

So in addition to perspective, you’re theoretically supposed to take color theory into account.

Should you?

Keep in mind the magic word – theory. If you go up to 10 different artists who studied color theory, you’re going to get ten different cutoff points between warm colors and cool colors. So instead, let’s keep it simple.

warm color vs cool color
Warm colors can burn you. Cool colors cool you off

Traditional cutoff

I don’t like to argue. If someone says that I’m slightly wrong, then I’ll let them believe what they want to believe. I paint for things to look good and not to argue points that buyers could care less about. After all, I’m not trying to look good with other artists. I’m trying to look good with the people who actually buy art.

There’s so much snobbery in art that sometimes, I think a lot of artists need to get a life.

Let’s just keep this simple. If it burns you, it’s warm. If it cools you off, it’s cool. Part I of this theory trumps part II. By far.

Reds, yellows, and oranges are warm. Blues and grays are cool. Greens are generally pretty cool but some greens will start heading into the warm direction, but on the cool side. Same with purples.

Arousal vs relaxation

Now let’s add a part III. Let’s get into psychology. Cool colors are supposed to relax you. Warm colors are supposed to fire you up.

Psychological studies have been done that claim cooler colors are better if you want to relax, and warmer colors are better if you want to get shit done. How accurate are those studies? Well, do you really want my 2c? I think the person’s work ethic has more to do than the color of the room they’re doing the work in.

Take everything with a grain of salt. You should know color theory. Then break it. I don’t like rules anyways.

The truth of it all is that you should use colors that fit the painting. Knowing all of this may or may not help your artwork. Before I studied color theory, I had a painting that I showed to a beautiful woman and she absolutely loved it. Then an unsolicited art critic came by and said I need to study color theory. Take a guess whose opinion I valued more.

If you’re already making a living selling your artwork and you don’t know shit about color theory, then you can dismiss this whole article as artistic masturbation. If you aren’t yet, it’s probably helpful.

To be honest, I’m just sharing it with you because I learned it. I thought “what the hell” and did my homework. Now I’m sharing it with you. And as the immortal Bruce Lee says, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

That especially applies to art. Your eyes are significantly more important than theory. But knowing an extra trick or two can’t hurt.


Pinup Artist. Composer. Writer.

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