Understanding Color Temperature Relationships

Welcome to the First of 6 tutorial installments that follow the development of the drawing below. This series was also created as a way to introduce some key subjects within the process of building this drawing.

Abrieviated steps of this tutorial series

To view a high resolution file of the finished drawing click Here.

Color Temperature Relationships and Figure Drawing

The practice of drawing with a few select colors of ‘chalk’ is traditionally referred to as ‘Drawing Aux Trois Crayons’. Literally speaking this means ‘with three pencils’, and refers to a drawing done with black, red (sanguine), and white. Drawings or paintings done in two colors such as black charcoal on white paper, black charcoal and white chalk, brown and white chalk etc., are considered monochromatic. They are monochromatic not because they lack color necessarily, but because they lack color temperature relationships.  Adding a red pencil to the repertoire opens the door to depict color temperature relationships, and thereby steps into the ‘territory’ of  color and its principles.

A teacher of mine used to frequently say, “Drawing and Value are pivotal, Color is flexible“. Because of this most Ateliers (including my own) dedicate a large portion of their curriculum training students to become adept with drawing and value before stepping into color. It’s easy to become enamored with color, its potential complexity, and give it too much credit for its role in representational paintings. Drawing and Value are almost always the ‘workers’ who build the stage that Color can dance upon.

As long as the artist is relatively consistent with their use of color temperature relationships they can bend and tailor their choice of colors without compromising the visual integrity of the image. Take for example the following photograph of Dunnottar castle. Spend a moment examining these images and then scroll to the text below.

Dunnottar castle, Scotland – R.Matina/age fotostock ©

Pushed towards Red and Magenta

Pushed towards Cyan and Blue

Selective combination of both

The first image above is the original photograph, and the following three I modified using photoshop. The second image shows when all the relationships are pushed more towards red and magenta, and the third more cyan and blue. The fourth image I combined elements of the 2nd and 3rd in a themed manner: I let the reds show through more in the rocks, castle, and darker value range of the sky.

The above illustrates how color is a flexible system that can be tailored a great deal without compromising visual integrity or believability. Let’s take a more ‘real world’ example in terms of painting. Take a minute to view the following two images below and compare differences.

Nearly finished portrait study

Finished portrait study

When I did this portrait study I grabbed an available canvas from my studio that was already toned with raw sienna, resulting in a yellowish wash. As it turned out, the light on the model was considerably cool, and when I came back the next day and looked at the painting it seemed like there was a clash between how separately cool the face felt against the background wash. To solve this I looked for the relatively warm areas/range in the face, and brought some of the same yellowish/red warmth found in the background into those areas in the face. I also tried to use the same cool greens/turquoise found in the ribbon in the cool dark halftones of the face and in the iris’ of eyes. It’s possible the dark halftones on the face had more of a blueish cast in actuality, but since relative temperature changes are more important that specific color, it was possible to lean the cools more towards green/turquoise in order to echo the ribbon and eyes. The opposite could also be implemented, meaning altering cools of the ribbon to match those of the face etc.

Drawing with just Black, White, and Red chalk are an excellent way to step into the world of color. Limiting our color options forces us to think in terms of temperature relationships above trying to match any specific color. This way we can learn to work with the more important aspects of color without juggling too many variables at once. If executed well, it can be remarkable how ‘colorful’ one of these drawings can appear. The opposite is also true: a full-color palette can easily yield a lifeless, ‘muddy’ painting. I’d go further to say especially when using a multitude of colors on the palette it’s important to understand color temperature relationships.

Rubens drawing in black, red, and white chalk (© public domain)

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