Color Theory Explained

While I have always loved color, I have not always loved color theory, nor did I see a need for it. As a kid, everyone loved the colors I put together. The compliments continued to pour in through my teen years. By the time I set off for university to study design, I had no interest in color theory.

I remember the first day of my very first design class. I was ready to create something amazing and couldn't wait to get started. Then the instructor arrived, and within the first few minutes, I discover that the Color and Design course was just another name for Color Theory class. My heart sank.

The curriculum required me to study color theory two times each week for 15 weeks plus spend countless hours outside of class, completing the assignments, and this was only the first of four courses. It was not what I had in mind at all.

I missed the first part of the lecture because all I could hear in my head was my voice repeatedly whining, "No color theory!"

Finally, with no other option, I shut off the internal dialogue and reluctantly turned my attention to the instructor. I want to say I was immediately captivated, but I wasn't. It took several more classes, but once we started working on the interaction of colors, I gradually got interested in learning more about color theory.

Color Theory Reconsidered

For many weeks, my classmates and I worked our way through the exercises in the Josef Albers Interaction of Color book. The assignments weren't easy, and most took quite a bit of time to complete. There were many nights when all I could see were dots in front of my eyes from staring at tiny pieces of Color-aid paper for hours on end. But with each activity, I learn more and more about combining colors.

Hue Value Chroma Color Theory Exercise from Josef Albers Interaction of Colors

Kate Smith

I discovered that every color is like a chameleon that changes based on its surroundings. It can trick us because the same color can look different depending on what colors are around it. By the end of my first semester, I understood what Josef Albers meant when he said, "Color class prepares us to be fooled." I had already been deceived by color many times that semester.

Albers goal in developing his teaching method outlined in the Interactions of Color was "to open eyes" to seeing color, and with me, he achieved that goal. He also opened my mind to the benefits of learning color theory. By the time I begin my second semester, I had gone from whining, "No color theory," to enthusiastically saying, "Know color theory!"

I am still fascinated by the magical ability color has to deceive and delight us with each new design. And, with years of professional experience behind me, today I am even more emphatic when I say, "Know color theory!"

I say that, however, with one caveat. When it comes to using colors, you don't need to know anything about color theory to produce good results. In the end, what matters is that you or whoever you are doing the work for is pleased. Understanding color theory is just one more tool you can use to expand the way you look at and think about color.

Now I want to help you form a base of color knowledge and know-how, too. Let's begin with just what I think you need to know about color theory to noticeably up your color game starting today. Then once you understand the basic principles, there is no end to the ways you can observe and experiment with the concepts.

Start With Individual Colors

When you think about color theory, your mind may immediately think of the color wheel, but that is simply a tool for understanding color relationships. To truly understand color, you must begin by looking at individual colors.

Color theory starts with understanding each individual hue

I find it helps to think of colors the same way you do people. Each one has a set of characteristics, some of which are easy to see and others that aren't apparent right away. The more time and attention you give them, the more you discover. Before you can think about bringing colors or people together, you need to consider their characteristics to determine compatibility.

Each color has characteristics that you need to be able to recognize and describe in order to bring together colors that will create successful combinations for any design.

Describing Colors

If you have ever tried to describe a color to someone, so they know what you mean, you know that it is almost impossible. If you were trying to depict a red color, you might try comparing it to an apple, but not all apples are the same red. The red another person imagines may be very different from the red you have in mind.

Accurately describing any color is a common, fundamental problem. Color is integral to our lives, but it resists our attempts to translate it into language. The best way to make sure that two people are thinking about the same color is to look at the same color.

Still, there are times when you need to use words alone to communicate a color as accurately as possible. Having a robust color vocabulary and a clear understanding of what each color term means is essential.

Throughout this tutorial, you will learn the basics of color theory and also learn many color terms. Take the time to make sure you know what each word means so that you can use it when it is not possible to show someone the color you have in mind.

We'll begin by learning three terms that will allow you to identify colors and communicate what you see to others -- hue, value, and chroma. Understanding these three characteristics of color will let you recognize what it is that makes each color unique.

Characteristics of Color: Hue, Value, Chroma

American artist Albert Munsell (1858-1918) recognized the problem with using words to describe colors. As an artist, he had experience with mixing paints. This helped him to understand that to portray colors accurately, we have to understand and be able to see the three different characteristics of any color. Only when we can identify and articulate these three components of color can we accurately convey the color we see.

​Hue, value, and chroma may sound scientific, but they are just technical terms for the way you talk about color every day. For example, if you've ever described a color as being light blue-gray or deep olive green, you've expressed all three of these attributes.

The more clearly and consistently you can describe each of the three parts of color, the better you will become at seeing color undertones and detecting the subtle differences between colors. Not only will you be able to describe colors to others more accurately, but you'll also become more adept at selecting the right colors for any project.

First, let's look at each characteristic. Then we will explore how hue, value, and chroma work together to define every color.

Hue

12 Hues of the color wheel theory

The simple definition of hue is color or the characteristic that distinguishes one color from another. Hue is commonly a synonym for the words color, tone, shade, and tint. More specifically, in terms of physics, a hue is the dominant wavelength of light that a person can see - red, blue, yellow, etc.

Hue sometimes is used to refers more specifically to the colors of the visual spectrum — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet --and these hues are blended to produce an untold number of colors.

Today, both color and hue are words used to define all of the colors we see.

The True Neutrals

In terms of color theory, black, white, and gray are neutrals.

True Neutrals: Black, White, Gray

Think of color in terms of light, and it makes sense that black is not part of the visual spectrum. You don't see black light. When your eyes cannot pick up any light, your eyes' and mind work together to create the color. Your brain produces the color known as black. An easy way to think about this is that black is the absence of light.

White is not part of the visual spectrum either, but like black, can be seen nonetheless. Your eyes and mind work together to create the color white in your mind. When your eyes take in all of the wavelengths of light at once, what our brain sees is the color we call white. White includes every color of light.

Gray is any mixture of black and white. Gray can include any amount of black and white but must consist of both.

A Note About Neutrals

Today, the word neutral describes many, many colors besides black, white, and gray. Some people think that the word neutrals should be reserved for black, white, or gray only. I believe (and so do most top linguist around the world) that language evolves, and we must accept that it changes.

When it comes to color terms, I go with widespread usage of neutrals to describe many colors beyond black, white, and gray since those are the terms my clients and students use. When teaching, if what I mean by the word neutrals includes only black, white, and gray, I do my best to say "true neutrals" so that there is no confusion.

Now on to the second characteristic of color.

Value 

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.

It defines a color in terms of how close it is to white or black. The lighter the color, the closer it is to white. The darker the color, the closer it is to black. For example, navy blue emits less light and has a lower value than sky blue.

High and low are ways of describing value. The lighter the color, the higher the value; the darker the color, the lower its value.

Value gives shape dimension

It is the change in value that gives you the ability to see objects as three-dimensional. The circle on the left is a solid color and appears flat. By making areas lighter and darker, the circle in the middle seems to have dimension and looks like a sphere.

Value also guides your perception of space. By changing the value of the middle circle, it looks like a sphere that is floating in space. By darkening the color below the shape, it appears to be sitting on a surface.

These three circles are all flat. It is this change in value that gives the circle above an impression of dimension. It is also the change in value that indicates where the object is within its environment.

You may not consciously be thinking about value, but when your eyes are open, your mind is continually making value comparisons all of the time.

As your mind is comparing values, it focuses on the differences between the values. You see that one area is darker or lighter than another. Our mind sees dimension based on your past knowledge of how light hits and object and creates areas of lightness and darkness (light and shadow). Your brain recognizes these value patterns and interprets what you see. It is the information stored in your memory bank that turns a flat shape into a sphere when you see a circle with a particular pattern of shading.

The Value of Value

For many artists (and designers), colors sing to them but the colors sing so loudly that they cannot hear value whispering.

Bonnie Auten, CPSA Artist

It is in the simplicity of the definition of value --the lightness or darkness -- that the complexity and importance begin to get lost. Value is not nearly as alluring as color. I've never heard anyone talk about having a particular value they love in the same way they do about having a favorite color.

A color or combination of colors is what calls out to us and grabs your attention. Just don't forget to pay attention to the soft voice of value, too. Its message can make all the difference in creating your best art and designs. Here are a few examples of how you might use this skill or how it can benefit you.

If you are an artist striving to draw or paint realistically, after drawing, the ability to see value is your most important skill. Even if you don't match a color precisely if you get the value of the color right, the picture will look right. However, if you use the wrong value, even if the hue is correct, you will be viewed as a much less skilled artist even by those who don't know art well.

With interior design, one of the most common mistakes people make is to use a minimal range of values, making their room design feel flat or uninspired. By thinking about value, you can thoughtfully broaden the variety of colors and include a range from dark to light to create a more pleasing scheme. Have you ever heard the adage, "Every room needs a bit of black?" The message means to include a range of colors from white to black and thus create a more professional look.

A graphic designer uses a change in value to draw attention, emphasize particular elements, or create a focal point. Using different color values is the quickest way to attract someone's attention to an area in a design.

These are just some of the many ways, value plays a critical role in art and design. The more you employ value in your work, the more you will be able to see for yourself its importance or as I like to say "the value of value."

Have no fear if you don't yet know how to see the value of a color. Once you learn how to take your attention away from the hue, you can train your eyes and mind to identify the value of a color, and It can happen quickly.

What is the Value Scale?

To determine the value of a color, you need to be able to know how close the color is to black or white. Without something to compare it to, it can be challenging to determine the value of a specific color. To make it easier, there is a tool called a grayscale.

A grayscale has black at one end and white at the other end. In between, there are graduated shades of gray. In the past, the most popular grayscale included twelve steps from white on one end to black on the other end. With more and more digital designs, an eleven step value scale with black and white shown divided into portions that equal 100% is most natural for people to understand.

Color Theory Grayscale

By comparing any color to a standardized grayscale, you can determine its value. There are no colors as dark as black or as light as white. All colors fall somewhere on the value scale between black and white. When looking for a matching value, use the steps between black and white.

Hue and Value Combined

Now that you are clear on the first two characteristics of color, we will talk about combining hue and value before moving on to discuss the third characteristic, chroma.

When you think of pure hues, it is easy to think of them all as being equal in value. After all, they are the purest version of each color. When you take your focus away from the hue and look at the value, you will see that they are not all the same. The pure hues vary in value.

Pure yellow is lighter than any of the other colors. Violet and Blue-Violet are darker than the other hues.

Relative Value of Colors

To determine the value of a color, place a grayscale against the color to see which square is closest in lightness or darkness. You will know you have the closest value when the edge of the gray square (ideally) seems to disappear against the color. It is sometimes easier to see this happen if you squint your eyes because that makes the hue stand out less, allowing you to focus on the value.

You will rarely get a perfect value match since you are comparing nine steps of gray to an unlimited number of colors, but finding the closest value is close enough.

One Hue Many Values

For every color, there are light, middle, and dark values. One way to change the lightness or darkness of a pure hue is to add black, white, or gray to the color. You can also change the value by adding another color, but that can also change the color, so, for now, we will look only at changing a color's value with black, white, and gray.

Color Value Red Blue Yellow

In theory, adding white, black, or gray to a hue does not change the hue; it only adjusts the value (lightness or darkness) of the color. However, when working with actual pigments, paints, inks, dyes, etc. adding black, white, or gray may change the color due to the impurity of materials.

Look at the three rows with red above first.  These are the things to take a look at:

  • All of the squared in the three rows except for pure black, white and middle gray are red.  What makes them appear to be different is their value (lightness or darkness.)
  • In the bottom row, from red to white, the value of each square gets lighter.
  • In the top row, as you move from red on the left to black on the right, the red gets darker, and the value gets lower as it gets closer to black.

But what about the middle row? Have the values changed

  • Because the color red and middle gray have the same value, the value is slightly darker but has not changed significantly.

Now, look at the rows of yellow, which has a lighter value than middle gray. Notice that the steps between yellow and gray or yellow and black get darker in value more slowly than they did with red.

Next, look at the rows of blue, which has a darker value than middle gray. In this case, the squares get dark more quickly.

Can you see that many of the squares in each set  have the same value? If two colors have the same hue and value yet appear to be different, what it is about the color that changed?

Answering that question takes us to the third characteristic of color -- chroma.

Chroma

Chroma is the attribute that expresses the purity of a color. Mixing a pure hue with black, white, gray, or any other color reduces its purity and lowers its chroma.

Chroma, intensity, and saturation mean slightly different things, but because the differences are not easily detectable by the human eye, the terms are interchangeable. You rarely hear the word chroma outside of a discussion of color theory. Most people use other terms to communicate a color's chroma.

The words clear, brilliant, bright, vibrant, bold, intense, saturated, or vivid describe hues that are pure or close to pure. Toned-down, soft, muted, subtle, misty, dull, drab, grayed, or dusty explains lower chroma colors. Adding terms to represent the purity of color to your vocabulary gives you an additional way to fine-tune your color descriptions.

Color theory - Chroma, Intensity, Saturation

The Purity of a Color

Think of the purity of color in the same way you would with gold. 24 karat gold is 100% pure gold. 18 karat gold is 18 parts gold and six parts of another metal. 14 karat gold is 14 parts gold and ten parts of another metal and so on. It is all still called gold, but some types are purer than others.

The same is applies to color. Pure red is 100% red, and pure blue is 100% blue and so on. Mix any pure colors with any other hue, and it lowers the chroma of the color.

For example, If you mix pure blue with a tiny amount of gray, it would be difficult to see the color change, but the blue would no longer be pure blue. It could be 97% blue and 3% gray. Continue adding gray, and the amount of blueness continues to diminish. As blue becomes a smaller percentage of the whole, it is less blue and has a lower chroma than pure blue.

Chroma and Value

Now that you know what chroma is, I want you to think about how chroma and value work both together and independently.

Color theory -- Value and Chroma

In the diagram above, red, green, and gray are all the same value and so that you can see both changes in chroma and value.

Between red and green, nine squares are a mix of the two colors. The first square to the right of pure red is made to appear about 90% red and 10% green. The addition of green has reduced the purity of the red and thus lowered its chroma. It is still quite red but no longer 100% red.

As you move to the right, the amount of red continues to decrease until you reach the middle where the color looks more brown than red. From that point, the green takes over and continues to increase as you move closer to pure green.

Now, I want you to slow down enough to think about what happens when both the chroma and value of a color change. It is not a difficult concept, but one that many people find difficult to wrap their mind around because it is challenging to think about these two dimensions of color at once.

Go back to the column on the far left and look at the squares above the red hue. Each square shows red blended with white. As the squares move from red towards white, they become lighter in value. The square also become lower in chroma.

Next, look at the squares below pure red. Each square is red mixed with black. As the squares move towards black, they become darker in value. They also become lower in chroma.

Chroma and value are independent of one another. The value of a color can increase as the chroma decreases. In this case, as you add more and more white to pure red, the resulting colors are lighter and less saturated.

Going in the other direction, as you add more and more black to pure red, the resulting colors are darker and less saturated.

All of the other colors you see in the grid have a lower chroma than the squares of pure red and pure green. The colors below have a lower (darker) value and lower chroma; the colors above have a higher (lighter) value and lower chroma.

When you mix white, black, gray, or any color into a hue, you reduce its chroma.

When you mix white or black with a hue, you change its value making it lighter or darker. When you combine gray or any other color with a hue, the value changes most of the time.

On the chroma value chart above, you can see that in each horizontal row of squares chroma changes in chroma, but the value of all squares in the row remains the same because the two original colors were of equal value.

Key Points to Remember

  • Think of colors the same way you do people. Each one has a set of characteristics, some of which are easy to see and others that aren't apparent right away. The more time and attention you give them, the more you discover.
  • Learn to identify the hue, value, chroma, and temperature of any color. Understanding these dimensions of color will let you recognize what it is that makes each hue unique. The more you know about each color, the easier it is to find compatible hues.
  • Don't allow the simplicity of the definition of value --the lightness or darkness -- to keep you from seeing its complexity and importance. Pay attention to value. The right values can make all the difference in creating your best art and designs.
  • When it comes to color, even when you aren't familiar with a color term, I bet you are familiar with what it means. You have been experiencing color for years and "know more than you think you know." An example of this is "chroma," which expresses the purity of a color. You may think it is an entirely new concept, but you are already are familiar with chroma. You just use other words to communicate this characteristic of color.
  • Learn to trust yourself and develop your color sense-ability. When working with color, there are often no absolutes - principles which are universally valid or which you can see without relation to other things. The more you understand about how color works, the easier it becomes to trust the colors you think work, do work very well!

Before You Go to the Next Lesson

Did you find this lesson helpful? Do you still have questions? Leave a comment below to let me know. I want my website to be a resource that helps you to understand and love color as much as I do. Your comments help me to know if I am reaching that goal. 

Continue the Color Theory Tutorial

You are Currently Viewing Lesson 1: Start With Individual Colors

Go Forward to Lesson 2: Color Relationships & the Color Wheel

Jump to Lesson 3: Creating Color Harmony

Jump to Appendix 1: Color Terminology Glossary


Read Time: 16 min
  • Deborah says:

    Very helpful! I’ve studied colour theory many times over the years and still don’t quite get the difference between value and chroma.

    Also, under Hue on your chart of reds, I can see how the top and bottom rows come about, but the middle row confuses me – is removing red (or reducing chroma?) makes the red less saturated. Correct? Is this lower chroma or lower value?

    Thanks so much for your article, Kate, as I am for the first time actually able to formulate these questions. 🙂

    • Kate Smith says:

      Great to hear that this helped you to understand the concept, Deborah. It is difficult to pull the three characteristics but once you are able to do that and see the difference it is amazing how much more sense everything else about color becomes.

      Beginning at the upper right red square and working both down and across you reduce the chroma in each square. This is true because any time you mix any other color with a pure hue you reduce the chroma.

      As you noticed the value also changes.

      Starting at the top and working down the value of the squares in each column are darker than the one directly above.

      Starting at the right and working left the value of the squares in each row are lighter than the one directly to its right.

      The chart just shows varying degrees of change in chroma and value as you get further from the original hue.

  • Duncan Bullock says:

    Color is everything to me. As a graphic design and fine artist and on an individual, I experience color in profound ways.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Me, too, Duncan. 🙂

  • Color helps us see the world around us, defining shapes & depth with shadows. Color evokes emotions differently for each of us, as I love bold and bright colors in my home while most people are more comfortable with fairly muted colors or just a splash of accent color.

    • Kate Smith says:

      You are so right, Tina. Colors are tied to our emotions and bold, bright colors just feel good.

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