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Friday, October 14, 2011

Light Has Temperature, Too

Imagine someone strumming a guitar slightly out of tune. No matter how lovely the melody or how well it is played, if even one string is out of tune the rendition is bothersome.   We get the same sensation when a painting's color temperature is “out of tune”.

The temperature of light--whether it is warm or cool--is the one element that keeps a painting "in tune," that gives the feeling of harmony.  If the ambient light in a scene feels warm, then all the colors need some degree of warmth whereas if the light is cool, even  colors we recognize as warm will be slightly cooler.

I'm including this color wheel as a reminder of the warm and cool colors when not effected by ambient light.

Notice the sense of overall warm light in this Richard Schmid painting.  Even though they are cooler than the buildings,  the grays of the street, sidewalk and sky contain some degree of warmth.
Richard Schmid     Oil on Canvas
Now look at the overall cool light in this painting by Charles Reid.
Charles Reid    Watercolor on Paper

Although we think of skin tones as being warm, when in cool light, they are perceived cooler, leaning more towards violet than orange.  Even the yellows of the boat and distant building are cool yellows.

Here's a little experiment I did:

Below are four versions of a single scene, the original and three others each with a different light temperature.   Using my photo editing software, I created varying light temperatures, then sampled three areas of each photo to see how the change in temperature effected the original colors.

For larger version, click on photo     Original photo by Cathy Hauck
Each little box of color labeled A is taken from the large shadow on the grass.  Those labeled B are taken from the woman's white shirt, and the C's are taken from the sunlight grass.  Comparing these we can see how even the sunlit grass becomes  a bit bluer under the blue light, a bit more olive in a magenta light, and a brighter, yellow green under the yellow light.  And notice how even the hot red of the firetruck changes consistent with each new light temperature.

Taken individually, each of these versions is "in tune," giving the feeling that the same color of light is present within the entire scene.

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