Warm or cool colour?

Jorunn Hernes // November 9 // 10 Comments

Having trouble telling warm from cool?

You're not alone. It's surprisingly confusing.

And for the purpose of buying clothes, all you have to do is harmonize the item with your colour fan. Place your fan on the fabric and look.

Does the fan look frozen and the fan veering towards blue?

Then the fabric is likely to be a bit on the warm side for your Season.

Does your fan look a little hot and bothered or orange next to the item you're considering?

Then the item in question might be a little too cool.  Does the fan look like it grew on the same tree as the fabric, does it look happy? then it's likely to be within your range of warm-cool. Because there is a range. Every Season, even the True Warm or True Cool Seasons have a range of cooler to warmer colours within the palette.

But yes, let's nerd about telling warm from cool colours. To nerd is so totally a verb.

Tech talk 

(skip this if you haven't had your morning coffee)

We see colours because our eyes respond to energy in the form of the different wavelengths of light. The eye responds in one way to the wavelengths of blue, blue-green and green and in another way to red, orange and yellow wavelengths.

Red, orange and yellow wavelengths are longer and seem warm and stimulating, and blue, blue-green and green have shorter wavelengths and seem cool and calm.

Nordic Simplicity talk

My brain is wired to simplifying, so to me it makes more sense to think of red as warm because it reminds me of fire (heat) and blue is linked to water and ocean (chilly) and therefore gives me cool associations.

So far, it sounds irritatingly simple:

Cool colours have a lot of blue in them, and warm colours have a lot of red or yellow in them. 

But we talk about things like warm and cool red. 

Wait, what? How can red be cool? You just said red is a warm colour!

Yes, it is. But let's take it back.

Let's take it wack to what I always tell my clients before we start the PCA: 

A colour is only a colour based on what we see it next to. The way we see a colour is based on what we see at the same time. It's called simultaneous contrast and it's the guiding light and the basic principle of colour analysis.

So, before your eyes start rolling and your fingers start crawling across the screen of your phone looking for an exit from this web page, let me show you something that I find utterly mesmerising:

Simultaneous contrast illustration 1

This illustration is adapted from Interaction of Colour by Joseph Albers

The purple below and above the black and yellow stripe look different.

But they're not

They're the same purple, they only look different because they're surrounded by different colours. You don't believe me? Scroll to the bottom of the page.

So how light or dark a colour looks is depending on what colours we see next to it.

What about cool and warm?

Same thing.

How cool or warm it seems is also relative.

Yes, we have the ultimate cool colour of blue, and the ultimate warm colour of red (and yellow), like this:

Colour temperature

However, any given variation of a colour will have a relative coolness or warmth, it will look cooler or warmer.

fire engine red



Notice how the coral red on the right (B) looks warmer than the fire engine red on the left (A).

That's because there is less yellow in fire engine red A.



fire engine red


But next to fuchsia (C), the same fire engine red (A) looks warmer, yes?

There is still the same amount of yellow in A, but next to fuchsia pink C, which has a little blue in it,  A looks warmer than C.

The colour squares in the illustrations and the quiz are scanned from the Season posters by True Colour International. You can order your own Season posters from them!

I find this so fascinating that I put together a quiz to help you practice. Because it's only by practicing that we can train our eyes to see.

Take the quiz as many times as you like, it's designed to help you get better at telling warm from cool.

Oh, by the way, before you go, did you not believe me when I said the purple colour was the same top and bottom on the illustration?

Here's the proof:

Simultaneous contrast illustration 2

This illustration is adapted from Interaction of Colour by Joseph Albers

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