Watercolor/Oil: Colour Lesson: Creating a warm glowing red

Creating warm glowing reds:

This is not a step by step guide of how to paint this subject. What I want to highlight are a number of points using this study as an example.

This Parrot Tulip study teaches you many of the invaluable lessons that will help you create form – no matter which medium you choose.

Lets take a look at the two steps in this study:

Although this painting is predominately red – you can see that I have been able to create form with what is almost a monochrome painting. How did I do that? You can see I didn’t simply rely on tonal value to create form.

The answer is simple – I used warm and cool colors to establish and mold the form: Warm hues on one side of each shape and cool on the other side.

Let’s take a look at the layers I used and let’s chat about why I used them. I will show the alternatives and this will help you not only understand my reasoning, but also help you with your future studies – no matter which color, subject or medium you choose.


This is the first stage of creating the basic shapes where I use warm and cool colors to help me establish form. You will notice the glow I create in the inner sanctum of the tulip prior to applying my shadow color.

You can see here how the shadow color brings a greater three dimensional feel to the painting. Adding a shadow color will dull the previous washes so we need to compensate for this by creating an exaggerated glow in the initial stages. Throughout this painting you can see my red is vibrant. Read on and you will find out why. Let’s discuss how to create glowing reds.

Highlights are generally cooler than shadowed areas.
What else can you see in this tulip painting? Have you noticed the outer petals are hit by light – whereas the inner petals and the petals at the top of the tulip are not in direct sunlight? You will have noticed how much warmer these inner and top petals are. Direct sunlight generally casts a cool light on a subject. This tulip is no exception. You will have noticed how the red hue closest to the highlight is affected by cool light. This is why I have used a cooler red surrounding the highlight. As the petal recedes away from the light – you will notice the red begins to glow. This is how we can use light describe form. Warm and cool colors allow us to create the impression of shape.

Compare these examples:
 The one on the left has Scarlet Red (Schmincke) directly onto the white of the paper. The one on the right has Scarlet Red over an Aureolin Modern (Schmincke) yellow under wash. In the one on the left can you see how the white paper gives the red a ‘raw’ appearance? Conversely the red that has a yellow under wash exudes warmth as well as giving the appearance of substance and a glowing ‘from within’. The degree of glow depends on the depth of yellow under wash we use. More yellow = greater glow.

Ruby Red for cool red areas:
To describe the space where I need a cool hue next to the cool highlight, I choose Ruby Red (Schmincke) which is cooler because it is closer to blue on the color wheel in comparison to the much warmer Scarlet Red we used on the other areas. Scarlet Red is warmer because it is closer to yellow on the color wheel. But when we need our red to emit warmth and glow – using a warm red is not enough on it’s own. We can emphasize the warmth by creating a yellow under wash below our red washes as shown above.

Glowing center of flowers:
Generally in the center of a flower you can find areas where warm glowing color is bouncing around enhancing the beautiful warm glow that we see in these enclosed areas. This requires a greater depth of yellow in our under washes. The cooler areas such our Ruby Red passages need to be kept cooler, so we don’t use a yellow under wash there – or we use an almost unperceivable yellow under wash – just enough to take the raw look from this cool area.

What is the Effect of a yellow under wash under the purple/pink Ruby Red?
What would happen if we put our normal strength yellow underneath Ruby Red? Why not try it? Take a look at my mini demo of what happens when you do that. Can you see on the left how the yellow dulls the purple/pink?

Why does a yellow under wash mute and dull Purple/Pink? For the answer to this question, we need to think about our complementary colors. Understanding what they do will help you understand why the yellow under wash didn’t allow our purple/pink to glow – instead we see how a yellow under wash will mute a pink/purple hue: Yellow is the complementary color of purple. This means it is opposite on the color wheel to purple. When we want a muted shade of purple, we simply use a touch of the complementary color which is yellow. This will dull our purple down a little or a lot – depending on how much complementary color (yellow) we use.


So the converse of this is that if we want our purple/pink hue to look fresh and vibrant we need to use a very pale yellow under wash (right hand image above) or avoid using yellow completely (as shown on the left).

Let’s get back to our pink/purple that sits next to our highlight in our tulip painting: had I used a strong yellow under wash in this area I would get a more dull hue as you can see demonstrated above left. But you can see the purple/pink in this painting is fresh and not dulled or muted. Now you know why!



Understanding warm and cool colors and how to use them effectively in our paintings is not an easy thing to grasp initially. Experimenting will help you see the logic of it for yourself. Try to recreate the examples of color I have shown above.  Once you can grasp the power of color temperature you will be amazed by it. You will find this awareness will make all the difference to the reality and feeling of presence in your work. It will feel as if someone has turned a light on for you!


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