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Understanding Color Jargon

To understand color as an artist, you've got to understand its jargon.And you do that by looking at it from an analytical point of view.

Take for instance the red of an apple. It possesses three outstanding characteristics or qualities: Hue, Value and Tone .


First, there is that quality by which we recognize one color from another, and which we suggest by its name. This we call "hue."

The apple is red; red is the hue (name) of the color.

Remember the equation: "Hue = Name".

Got that? Ok... Let's move on. :-)

Now, you can alter the hue of a color by mixing another color with it. If you mix red pigment with yellow pigment, for instance, you get orange pigment.

That is a change of hue .


Next comes the quality by which we discern lightness or darkness in a color.

This we call "value."

It is by value that we (you and I) are able to distinguish between light red , bright red , and dark red .

By mixing a color with something lighter or darker than itself, we change its value.

If we mix black or white (or water, in the case of watercolor pigments) with a color, we change its value but not its hue.

Interesting, huh?

A color in its full, natural strength may be called a "normal" color, or a color of "normal value."

If lighter, we call it a "tint."

If darker, it's called a "shade." <

The terms "tint" and "shade" have been abused so often, though, that some art educators and authors prefer using the term "value" .

Instead of saying "a tint of blue" , for instance, they prefer saying the "light value of blue." And rather than a "shade of green", they say the "dark value of green."


"Tone" is a word of ambiguous meaning which is often employed in a general way to include all normal colors, tints and shades. Some authorities, however, use it to refer specifically to grayed values of any hue. Thus, color mixed with white would be described as a tint; color mixed with black would be called a shade; and color mixed with both black and white, a tone.

If these words were always used in just this way, it would doubtless be easier to communicate color distinctions more accurately than we now do, but in common usage all three words are used almostinterchangeably.


Some colors are strong and some weak.

The quality by which we distinguish strength or weakness in a color is called "intensity. "

When you say that an object is colorful or strong in color, you are referring to the object's intensity.

You can change the intensity of a normal color by mixing it with other hues. This tends to dull or gray it. You can also change intensity without changing value or hue by adding neutral gray of equal value.

This quality which we call "intensity" is also called "chroma" , or "saturation" and the value of a color is sometimes termed "brightness" , or "lightness."

Color Names

Though these particular differences in terminology are of slight consequence to the average artist, they emphasize the unfortunate confusion of terms which exists in the entire field of color.

Take, for instance, the matter of color names.

There are literally thousands with new ones invented every day by imaginative copywriters. Few are truly descriptive.

There are colors named for flowers or plants, such as rose, violet, indigo; for fruits orange, plum, peach, lemon; for places Antwerp blue, Nile green; for persons Hooker's green, Payne's gray, Rembrandt's madder.

The inadequacy of such terms is evident. Can you imagine musical tones called lark, canary, cockatoo, crow, cat, dog or mouse, because they bear some distant resemblance to the cries of those animals?

It's almost like ice cream names!

Apart from color names, there are many other color terms equally ambiguous, such as those just presented in our description of color qualities.

Technology and the digital revolution of the late 20th century, however, produced a new way of precisely identifying colors by way of hexadecimal notation in HTML code .

This ensures that colors can look the same on the screen.

However, that nomenclature is only effective on the screen. Color offline still presents some difficulties to classify and identify on a consistent basis.

More Color Theory Links:

Rokeby Venus, by Velazquez


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