A very important part of color theory is knowing how to identify warm and cool colors. But this knowledge also applies to picking out colors for your interior.
Typically, a color is considered warm if it’s a red, orange, or yellow hue but a color is considered cool if it’s a blue, violet, or green hue. However, this all changes when the color is surrounded by other colors.
Keep reading to find out how to use the easy 3-step method to identify whether any color is cool or warm!
Warm vs cool colors
The thing is, colors are relative. This means that in one situation a color might be considered warm, but in another situation, the exact same color is considered cool.
But generally speaking, there are two temperature groups: the warm group, and the cool group.
As the name suggests, the warm group has a set of given hues that are considered warm and the cool group has a set of given hues that are considered cool.
These two temperature groups cover the 12 hues:
What colors are are considered warm colors?
Warm colors are the colors surrounding red. This includes:
They sit on this half of the color wheel:
What colors are considered cool colors?
Cool colors are the colors surrounding blue. This includes:
They sit on this half of the color wheel:
But did you know that blue colors can be warm? And red colors can be cool?
For this, you need to understand how hues differ from colors: Hue vs color: what is the difference?
How do you tell if a color is cool or warm?
To easily identify whether a color is either cool or warm, we need to guess where it sits on the color wheel relative to the color’s hue range. If the color sits toward the warm group, it’s considered warm, and if it sits toward the cool group, it’s considered cool.
This means identifying which colors fall into which temperature group is still important.
Let’s use a visual example to make things clear.
I have a green object that’s half in the sun, and half in the shade. Therefore I need a warm and a cool green.
Can you guess where those greens sit on the color wheel?
If you’ve done it correctly, your warm green would lean towards one of the colors in the warm group.
In this case, the closest warm color to green is yellow. Therefore your green should lean towards the yellow.
The cool green should sit towards one of the cool colors. In this case, the remaining cool colors are blue and violet so your cool green should sit towards the closest cool color: blue.
This is where each green would sit:
Each green color closer to yellow than the warm green pictured above is considered warmer. That’s why color is relative: The original warm green color may be considered cool when picking an even warmer green.
Just something to keep in mind!
Let’s try a harder color: Red. Since red is obviously a warm color, we can’t judge it by asking ourselves how much it leans toward red.
Instead, we need to use the remaining warm colors: orange or yellow.
Can you guess which red is cool and which one is warm? Where do they sit on the color wheel?
- Where do you place each red on the color wheel?
- Which group do they lean toward?
- Compared to each other, are they cool or warm?
Red becomes cool when it leans more toward one of the colors in the cool color group. In this case, violet, since it’s the closest cool color to red.
Out of the two colors, which one leans towards blue the most?
If we had to place each block on the color wheel, we see that the left color should be placed near orange which makes it warm.
The right color should be placed towards violet which makes it cool.
Remember it’s all relative. If we have a color that leans more towards the violet than our current cool red, the cool red would become warm (compared to the new cooler red).
Tip: I always keep a color wheel near me to reference when painting. After a while, you don’t need it anymore but it can always come in handy when working with those tricky colors!
Here’s a printable color wheel template I designed along with a couple of swatch sheets which you can get here. This way you can create your very own color wheel.
3 step method on how to tell if a color is cool or warm
Here’s a summary plus visual guides on how to tell the temperature of a color.
Use the following method to identify whether a single color is cool or warm:
To determine if a single color is warm or cool we assign them to the correct temperature group. If the single color has a red, orange, or yellow hue it’s considered a warm color. If the single color has a blue, green or violet hue it’s considered a cool color.
Use the following method to tell which color out of two (or multiples) colors is cool or warm:
- Place each color in the correct hue range on a color wheel
- Reds, blues, yellows, violets etc.
- Which temperature group does each color lean to?
- Keep shifting them until you placed them accordingly
- Compare the colors to each other to determine their relative temperature
- The color(s) closest to the warm group is the warmest and the color(s) closest to the cool group is the coolest
Just keep in mind that most of the time when people (non-artists) talk about cool or warm colors they talk about the general color groups.
Let’s talk about the most asked questions about cool and warm colors.
Is grey a cool or warm color?
Gray is considered a neutral color. But some grays are considered warm if they have a hint of yellow in them. Other grays are considered cool if they have a hint of blue in them.
Is teal a warm or cool color?
Teal is considered a warm color. It is also known as blue-green.
Is pink cool or warm?
Pink is technically considered a warm color because the hue of pink is red. However, pinks that have magenta as hue are considered cool pinks.
Is purple cool or warm?
Since purple is mixed out of equal parts red and blue, it’s technically considered both a warm and cool color. The color that most people refer to when they say purple is actually violet. Violet leans towards blue, which makes it a cool color.
Read about the important difference between violet and purple.
I hope you learned something new today. Keep practicing identifying colors and soon you’ll be able to quickly tell what a color’s temperature is.
But most importantly, keep a color wheel near you at all times!
Get my printable color wheels and swatch sheets: