Monday, August 5, 2013

Why do artists prefer warm colors?

Here's a painting by Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), who was known for his warm-tinted autumn landscapes. Cropsey's paintings in general tilted toward yellow and orange and red, and away from blue and green—even though blue and green predominate in the northeastern landscape most of the year 'round.

Cropsey was not alone among artists for warming his palette. A scientific study* compared the average warm/cool pixel distribution of random photographic images to average distributions among many artists' works, and the artists' color averages were distinctly warmer—much more yellow, orange and red, and much less blue and green than we see in nature. 

Why is this so? Are we as humans hard-wired to prefer a warmer palette? Do those colors remind us of sun or fire or spiritual realms? William James, in his book "The Varieties of Religious Experience," interviewed many people about the moments in their lives when they felt uniquely inspired, full of mystic revelation. He noted that many of those visions were tinged with golden colors, as are the interiors of many churches. But that doesn't really answer the question—it just poses another. 

Maybe some of you have ideas or anecdotes to shed some "golden light" on this discussion. 
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Wikipedia Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900)
*The chart is from a paper by Kun Zeng, Mingtian Zhao, Caiming Xiong, and Song-Chun Zhu.

21 comments:

Michael said...

My painting teacher Roger Anliker at Tyler School of Art back in the 80's said being warm blooded we tend to shift things toward the warmer colors. He used the example of bleach that adds bluing for extra whiteness.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluing_(fabric)

Greg Newbold said...

based on my gallery sales, the warm palette paintings sell faster. This would tend to back up your theory. Interior decorators tend toward warm color schemes also. Not to mention Fast Food chains that use almost exclusively decorating palettes that include red, orange or yellow.

Yoav de-Shalit said...

I can hardly see the benefit of comparing paintings to random photos in order to evaluate color tendencies. If the cause was psychological I would assume people would take warmer photos as well. Besides, if you compare random photos with random paintings, the most you can conclude is that paintings are usually warmer than photos.
Does the research states that 'artists tend to paint more warm subjects' or that 'they paint things warmer than they seem'?
I think these assumptions may also be true to some degree.
The cause may be due to the availability of pigments through history. It might also have something to do with the tinting strength of warm colors, which to my experience is stronger than the blues or greens.

JvL said...

The photos would likely to have been taken for documentary purposes, thus obviating the temptation to Photoshop them. Hence, the showed more blues and greens. Painters indulge their temptations when they can tweak the colors more toward the warm colors. Personally, I do this, too, as the surfeit of greens, particularly, annoy me. Green grass, green foliage, yes they may all be different greens, but I predict even Kermit would be driven nuts painting after painting of such landscapes!!

forgottengenius said...

The human tendency to prefer warm colours in paintings might be a simple by-product of more a general preference for warm colours: in nature warm colours tend to signal something that's edible -- just think of ripe fruit and acres full of ripe wheat. We seem to be hard-wired to prefer red over other colours (I tried to find the source for this, but I lost a lot of stuff when I moved from Google Reader...!). I'd think our preference for reds, yellows and oranges in art stems from our appetite: humans aren't much more complicated that that. :)

forgottengenius said...

Haha, I used the wrong ID. How embarrassing 8) 'Forgottengenius' is supposed to be hidden; I don't know why it's still visible even after I have logged out. Well, nevermind. OuO;

Felicity Deverell said...

Warm colours usually make us feel satisfied, warm, and lift our spirits. So when an artist wants to paint a picture of something that makes him personally happy and lifts is spirit, he tents to present it in a warm light.

Nelda Nixon said...

I don't wonder that it is as simple as reds an other colors of that family are the compliment of greens. Stare at a green sheet of paper for a bit and then glance at a white wall. Seems reddish to me. After a whole summer of greens, I long for fall colors to paint.

अर्जुन said...

Hey!…it's called 'Brown School', for nearly 400 years canvases were toned a variety of brown, neatly matching the palettes, and influencing the color scheme/gamut of every painting. Why?…I suspect the availability and therefore the price of earth colors made 'warm' popular with artists. This is the false color from which the impressionist turned.

http://books.google.com/books?id=sUm9z5OBeccC&pg=PA206&lpg=PA206&dq=harold+speed+%22brown+school%22&source=bl&ots=ORlH-OwldG&sig=FGDRBdOObZaKAjsI033_kWZxgK0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=iF8AUr6QFI354APB34G4AQ&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=harold%20speed%20%22brown%20school%22&f=false

Craig Banholzer said...

Bouncing off the previous comment about the Brown School, I suspect it has less to do with the colors people prefer than with traditional methods for creating space in a picture. The Renaissance formula for creating fictive space in a picture pretty much requires a lot of warmth in the foreground, with some coolness in the far distance. One thing that is certainly true of the impressionist paintings that went against this formula is that they are flatter by comparison with the canvases of Claude and Cropsey.

Michael Pianta said...

About the photo comparison - what I don't understand is how exactly this was conducted. What I'm wondering is whether or not yellowing varnish could have influenced the results.

Also, the availability of certain pigments is bound to be a factor. There are way more warm earth tones to choose from, and they were generally cheaper. Blues were famously expensive for a long time - Ultramine was almost as expensive as gold leaf back in the renaissance.

On the other hand, it does seem to be true that people are drawn to warm colors. But speaking personally I have always loved the cool sections of paintings - the blue sky or water can be refreshing. I can actually feel the sense of refreshment and relaxation.

James Gurney said...

All interesting points, thanks, everyone. The availability of pigments and the yellowing of varnish are two reasons that favor warm colors. Neither of those should be an issue in the last hundred years or so.

Also, it's true what many of you said, that photos are not a really good control, and they don't really represent "nature," because their colors can be selected by the same aesthetics that may be governing the choices in artwork. However, I don't know what else besides photos you could feed into the computer algorithm.

Also, I wonder if preferences in artwork differs from preferences in other things such as clothing, or just picking a favorite color out of a lineup. In that test, blue is the clear winner. Blue is the color Facebook uses--though as Greg points out, not many fast food chains use it.

Tom Hart said...

James, we're you really up posting at 1:56 this morning? :^) Just wondering...and being nosey...

James Gurney said...

Tom, I don't follow a normal sleep schedule. I'm usually awake part of the night and I sleep part of the day.

Leif said...

Interesting side note: It seems like at least in some cases, warm colors tend to fade more. I noticed this in some outdoor furniture as a kid: The red chair faded almost to blank, and the blue held its color. Later realized that the red chair is absorbing short, high-energy wavelengths, whereas the blue chair is absorbing long, low-energy wavelengths, presumably less damaging to the pigment. Based on this, I'd expect paintings to become "cooler"-looking as they age. Maybe I'm wrong, but it makes a nice story.

Sergio Lopez said...

Why are people in general fascinated by sunrises and sunsets?

Alexander said...

I work in the film industry. One of the biggest technological advances of the last decade has been the ability to "color grade" footage. Often, this means toning background elements more blue, so that people - who normally have orange/pink/brown skin - are emphasized by contrast. However, more generally, footage is often given a warmer hue to simulate or evoke the "golden hour" light just before sunset. In this way, film is drawing closer to the "painting reality warmer" convention.

Brad Teare said...

There was a fascinating study a few years back where people were surveyed around the globe and the most popular paintings tended to have a bluish tonality. Here is a web site that represents the basic idea: http://awp.diaart.org/km/painting.html.

The basic premise of the book was that we have a genetic, evolutionarily selected preference for blue scenes. My instinct is that people prefer warmer scenes or at least scenes with warm accents.

Nadina Cardillo said...

Interesting topic.

Let's try to analyze this from the opposite side. Where is art mostly cold, and why?

Movies come to mind immediately. I suppose that they are, as a whole, trying to attract attention by displaying a "new" and "unseen" range of colors.

I remember most blockbusters in the last years to be predominantly cold. (Avatar, Pacific Rim, the Batman reboot, Prometheus). That doesn't stop them from attracting millions of people, while "warmer" recent releases are not nearly as sucessful.

While this works wonders as a marketing strategy, few of the top movies on the IMDB or AFI ranking lists are cold, and they've been making cold movies since the eighties.

So is it that while they attract mass attention for being "strange", colder movies do not go on to become classics, but are instead forgotten by the general public? Do we remember warm movies more fondly than cold ones as the years go by?

I'd go as far as saying that the warmer a movie is, the more fondly it is remembered by the public. Three sci-fi hits from around the same year: Blade Runner (cold), Back to the Future (warm), SW: Return of the Jedi (super warm).

I think that this is mostly a side effect of using blue as a "detached" color. Film directors use blue to depict an alien culture or a dystopian future, but as an unintended result, the audience becomes detached from the film.

On a more general note, I'd put my money on the ol' good "sunlight vs. nighttime" thing. We like things that are as warm as possible because daylight means we're not getting hunted. We don't like things that are cold because that means a predator could be right around the corner.

Therefore, if you're taking something from my long comment, take this: When making paintings for owls (since they are night predators) use a cold palette. They feel safer when looking at it and are more likely to buy.

James Gurney said...

Nadina, thanks for that fascinating analysis. You make some great points. As Alexander said, I suppose moviemakers have always been able to adjust the warm/cool color balance of their films, but since about 2000, when digital tools for color grading became available, each sequence of a film can be very carefully calibrated.
Leif, yes, the changes in the color dyes of film negs and prints do change. Instagram and other photo filters seems to owe a lot to being abe to replicate the delicate warm fading and bleaching that happens to old photos.

Lieghana said...

I think if you paint long enough theirs a general enquiry about neutral colours like yellow, and browns. Our environment isn't actually predominated by blue hues. Unless your swimming or living by the ocean.

Yellow to me is a great colour to understand the difference between red and blue...