Painting Demonstration | Color Temperature Creates Depth and Form

Giving attention to color temperature subtleties in your paintings can make a big difference in your spatial illusions of depth and form.

In the illustration above, notice that the warm, red circle appears to advance, or come forward, on the picture plane while the cool, blue circle appears to recede or go back in space. This is because the wavelengths of warm colors are longer so your eyes see them sooner than the shorter wavelengths of cooler colors. Using warm colors in the foreground of a painting and cool colors in the background of a painting can help create the illusion of miles of distance in a landscape and of a more shallow depth of space in a still life painting. The illusion of advancing or receding also helps create a sense of form.

The following demonstration shows how color temperature can be used to create the illusion of depth and form in a painting.

1. Right from the start, I used color temperature to create the illusion of depth by painting a cool background and using cool colors in the areas of the white drapery that recede toward the background and into the shadow areas. Specifically, I used mixtures of Payne’s gray dulled with cadmium scarlet and then mixed with titanium white. The areas of the drapery that have light on them and that are near the front edge have some Naples yellow light added to the titanium white. By warming those areas, they not only appear to be in the light, but they also appear to advance.

2. Here I’ve begun painting the fruit. The pear is a lot warmer on the side where the light is striking and cooler in the shadows, which creates the illusion of light and form. The same is true of the red plums. Using cadmium yellow, I warmed the area of the lightest plum—the one farthest forward and closest to the light—making that area seem to advance. The areas of shadow are cooler, adding to the illusion that they are receding, which also contributes to the illusion of form. These warm and cool temperature differences were not what my reference material showed me, but because I understood principles of color temperature, I was able to make adjustments. (In addition to temperature, I used value to create the form.) Temperature also helps convey spatial relationships. The plum on the right is a bit behind the other plum. That illusion arises in part because the front plum overlaps the back plum, but the fact that the back plum is cooler than the front plum also helps.

3. Here you can see that I changed the background to a warm, neutral color of the same value as the previous cool background. When you compare this image with the previous one, you can clearly see how the cool background recedes easily behind the fruit and drapery while the warmer one pushes forward, competing for the space where the fruit is.

Here you see the finished painting Pear and Plums (oil, 8×10) with blush added to the pear and frost added to the plums. The addition of these final details adds to the realism of the fruit. The warm red blush on the pear makes that part of the pear advance even farther and makes the form look even more dimensional.

Summing up, warm colors seem to advance while cool colors seem to recede, and you can use this knowledge to create the illusion of form and depth of space.

Jane Jones is the author of Classic Still Life Painting (Watson-Guptill,2004) and a popular workshop teacher. See more of her work and learn about her workshops at

For more about color temperature and how you can use it to enhance your paintings, see Jane Jone’s Brushing Up column in the May 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, available at


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