UART Tip #22: My Lighter/Darker/Warmer/Cooler/Brighter/Greyer Mantra with Barbara Jaenicke

Okay, that title is quite the mouthful. But it’s what I live by when I paint.

I’m often asked how I approach color in a painting, and if I subscribe to any particular color theory.  I wish I could give a short and sweet answer to how I use color. And I also wish I found color to be that simple.

There are indeed plenty of books out there on color theory. Whenever I’ve tried to read about the scientific explanations of color, I seem to get so caught up in attempting to understand the science part that I fail to make the connection to how I would apply it to my own paintings. So I’ve developed my own unsophisticated method of understanding how to use color in my painting process …

I talk my way through a painting using the mantra above. Here’s how it works …

Lighter/Darker (Value)

Since I come from a drawing background, I tend to determine values better than I can color. So for each part of a painting, I first address the correct value. This is the “lighter/darker” part of that mantra that goes through my head.


Lighter and darker values of the same hue

Warmer/Cooler (Temperature)

Next is the “warmer/cooler” decision. You can’t determine if something is a “warm” or a “cool” out of context…this is what trips up most artists. You have to compare it to what it’s next to. Is it warmer than or cooler than what’s beside/above/below it. For example, the lower part of clear sky is normally warmer than the area above it and requires a color that leans toward pink or orange or yellow rather than a lighter blue. If a snow covered area is catching just a touch more light in one area vs. another, it will require a color that’s a touch warmer (again, with more pink, orange or yellow vs. the cooler area that may lean more blue or purple). IMPORTANT: The nuances of the warms and cools within the landscape aren’t always evident in a photo. A little manipulating in Photoshop can sometimes bring them back just enough to paint from, but a steady practice of painting on location helps with this!

Warms on the left. Cools on the right. Notice how the hue in the middle is cooler than what’s to the left, but warmer than what’s to the right.

Brighter/Greyer (Chroma)

Then lastly I determine the chroma (or saturation) … this is the “brighter/greyer” part. Typically distance will dull down color in a landscape, and foreground areas will have a brighter chroma. For example, if a subject far in the distance is catching direct sunlight, it will need to read as a warm, but a muted/greyed warm.


Brighter and greyer chromas of similar hues

When I try to rush through these three decisions during the painting process, that’s when I get myself into trouble. It can indeed be a tedious process, but well worth the scrutinizing if you want to push your skill level and have successful results.


Sunlit Slope, 16×20, pastel on mounted UART 400 In addition to high contrast values, this painting relies on greyed warms and cools in the distance and more saturated versions of those colors in the foreground.

Barbara Jaenicke, PSA, IAPS/EP, AIS, OPA

Visit Barbara’s website at to view more of her work and her workshop schedule, and check out her blog at for additional painting tips for both pastel and oil. You might also want to visit for Barbara’s instructional video series.