Warm and Cold: Injecting Meaning Into Colours
Good morning! We’re now standing on the very cusp of completing this Fundamentals course, so I’d like to thank you all for coming this far with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, and maybe even taken a thing or two away. We’ve already gotten through the bulk of the difficult material, so today’s guide will be very loose. After all, meaning is often very subjective in art, and even more so in colour choices. However, there are a few basic associations and common reactions to colour that we should know. For those of you who like pictures, this guide will have lots of them and not as much text! Let’s get right into it!
Warm and Cold
Colours are often divided into two camps: warm/hot colours, and cool/cold colours. Remember our colour wheel? Warm colours are generally considered to be those in the top half of the wheel, while cool colours make up the bottom half.
This is what’s known as temperature (for obvious reasons), and it’s one of the three key factors in guiding how our colours are perceived. As you may have guessed, the other two factors will be saturation and value, just like before. There are many common points between selecting a visually pleasing (or striking!) colour palette, and crafting a meaningful one
To address temperature first, we can think in terms of our natural associations with different colour temperatures. That is, we should consider what these colour ranges most often signify in nature. It’s extremely difficult to separate this step from colour selection itself, so let’s just make a trip around the colour wheel and explore with visual examples.
We will usually select warm colours to convey a natural and inviting atmosphere. This is because as humans, we’re comfortable with the colour of sunlight, and to a certain extent we’re also attracted to the light of fire. As long as your saturation and value aren’t too extreme, warm colours will automatically lend an air of comfortable radiance to your piece. Note that this applies much more to oranges and yellows than it does to reds.
On the other hand, cool colours can be used for a multitude of things. They can evoke a clear sky, the night sky, flourishing plant life, or the bitter cold. Just as with our warm colours, we can use these natural associations to automatically adjust the mood and meaning of our photos. Blues in particular are very flexible: cyans can be used to amp up contrast (which usually reads as harsh and cold), or darker blues can be used to smother contrast (which usually reads as night).
To round off the colour wheel, we can touch briefly on reds and purples. Reds can signify a great many things, but if we had to condense it all into one word, I’d say it would be “vigour”. Red, especially when highly saturated, is a powerful colour that can easily overtake and overwhelm your entire image.
Purples tend to convey an air of the unnatural, especially as you increase the saturation or the radiance (ie purple-coloured lights). There’s a reason that FFXIV so heavily leans on purple lights and palettes to tell players that the Void is at work.
Perhaps the effects of temperature can be seen more clearly if we grade the same image towards the two opposite ends of the spectrum.
As you might have realised, it’s a very difficult thing to isolate a single element of colour grading and/or colour selection. This is because colours are more than the sum of their parts–more so than any of your other compositional tools. Nonetheless, let’s forge onward to address saturation and value very briefly.
Pastels, Burnt Colours, and Emissives
This is where our previous knowledge of saturation and value come in handy. You may consider a pastel to be a heavily tinted colour; that is, a colour with a lot of white added to it. In other words, we get pastels by decreasing our saturation, and also significantly increasing our value. Burnt colours, on the other hand, are colours that have been heavily shaded–meaning a decrease in saturation, and also a significant decrease in value. Do note that it’s much more important to desaturate a pastel than it is to desaturate a burnt colour. A high saturation, high value colour is just approaching a pure hue, which is not what we’re looking for here.
Making a colour emissive just means that we’re going to use that colour as a light. Note that this can often make otherwise natural colours read as unnatural. Not necessarily a bad thing, just another tool in the toolbox! We’ll see some examples a little later on.
To recap before we get into our examples:
- Pastel: Low saturation, high value
- Burnt: Moderate to low saturation, low value
- Emissive: Make it glow!
Everybody loves pastel colours! It seems you really can’t go wrong with them… any colour combination seems to be cute if it’s all pastel. To that effect, these are our two primary uses for pastel colour selection and colour grading: to unify colours that might otherwise clash, and to make things cute!
Burning our colours is how we’re going to make them less aggressive and ground them. Because of the way our eyes read colour and nature, burnt colours will be less salient and much more earthy. Burn any colour enough and it starts to look like dirt, as I like to say! Sometimes, that kind of subdued effect is exactly what we’re looking for–not every image needs to be an eye-popping colour festival.
Emissive colours are very straightforward: we are going to use coloured lights to alter the atmosphere of our scene. Coloured lighting is still subject to the same spectrum of subtlety as everything else, dictated by its hue, saturation, and brightness. For example, it can be as subtle as warm mood lighting to make a portrait more cosy. Alternatively, we could replicate the red wash of light that you might associate with a submarine in full alarm. It all depends on what your story needs! Remember: even if you’re only using white light, that can also carry implications and meaning.
The Meaning of Colour: Closing Thoughts
I’ve stressed it repeatedly throughout this guide, but colours don’t have meanings that are set in stone. Sure, some colour families might have certain associated ideas that they naturally or easily evoke. But at the end of the day, the colours in your piece are tools to carry the intention and story of that piece. You can make some very strange colours and some very odd colour combinations work perfectly well, if you understand how to use and pair them.
Throughout your journey, you will read and hear many different rules for colour management. You will see many poorly executed pieces that “follow the rules”, and many incredible pieces that break them. Before we step into the final demonstration of this course, I’d just like to remind you one last time that here’s what really matters: you should know the rules, but experiment with breaking them.
What’s in a colour? In a compositional arrangement? How should we best use contrast? I cannot answer these questions for you; I can only give you tools. That’s what makes the arts so special, isn’t it? That we can all approach the same story with the same tools, and tell it a million different ways. I’m deeply thankful for all the amazing pieces and bite-sized stories that we’ve been able to make together, and I look forward to even more grand tales in the future!
Next time we meet, I’ll be walking you through my complete thought process for a single /gpose photo, to give you an idea of what my personal workflow and mindset are like. Please don’t miss it!
Art Fundamentals Article Index
- Focal Points and Their Hierarchies: A Guide to Guiding the Eye (click me!)
- Framing the Shot: Concepts and Solutions for Camera Placement (click me!)
- Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value (click me!)
- HSV and the Colour Wheel: How to Define and Arrange Colours (click me!)
- Warm and Cold: Injecting Meaning into Colours (you’re here!)
Demonstration of Principles (work in progress)