Color Terminology Glossary

Introduction to the color terminology glossary filled with definitions to a wide range of words related to color.

Click on the letter below to go directly to that point in the Color Terminology Glossary

A

Achromatic: free of color, without color, colorless. Achromatic is used to describe the absence of any hue. Examples of achromatic schemes -- black and white, black and gray, gray and white, or black, gray and white.

Achromatic Simultaneous Contrast: simultaneous contrast occurring between white, black, and gray. See Simultaneous Contrast

Admixture: means the act of mixing or the state of being mixed. It also describes anything added; any alien element or ingredient. When used in the context of color it often refers to similar colors with one having a small amount of another color mixed into it. For example, the first swatch is gray and the second an admixture with blue.

Additive Color System: the color system that uses light rather than pigment to create color. It is the system of digital media and computer screens. The additive primary colors are red, green, and blue and are often referred to by their initials RGB. It is called the additive color model because red, green and blue light are added together in various combinations to reproduce a broad array of colors.

Afterimage, Negative: is an optical illusion that refers to an image continuing to appear after exposure to the original image has ceased. For example, prolonged viewing of a yellow square on a white background can induce a bluish square afterimage on the surface when the yellow square is removed from view. The afterimage is produced because the color receptors (cones) in the retina of your eyes become fatigued when you stare at a particular color for too long. When you look away from that color, the fatigued receptors are not working as well as is normal. Therefore, the information from all of the color receptors is out of balance and you see only the remaining colors as an afterimage. [Try it for yourself]

Afterimage, Positive: by contrast to negative afterimage, appear the same color as the original image. They are often very brief, lasting less than half a second. An example is the white spot you continue to see after a flashbulb goes off.  [Try it for yourself]

Aging eye: The eye's clear lens can darken and yellow over time, which can cause older adults to have problems seeing dark colors. [source]

Analogous Colors: are colors two or more color that are side-by-side on the color wheel. To select an analogous color scheme, find any color on the color wheel. Then, choose two to four more colors directly to the left or right of your color without skipping over any colors; also called adjoining colors.

B

Balance: achieving color or design stability or harmony; balance is the distribution of the visual weight of color, elements, objects, texture, and positive/negative space.

Black: In the subtractive color model, black is not part of the visual spectrum and your eyes' and mind work together to create the color. When your eyes cannot pick up any light, your mind produces the color known as black. An easy way to think about this is that black is the absence of light. and white includes every color of light. In the additive color model, black is defined as the result of mixing together pigments, dyes, inks, or paint in the three primary colors. However, in actual practice, due to the impurity of pigments, when combining the three primaries, they often produce a color that is more brownish than black.

Bulky Color: any partly or wholly transparent color perceived as filling a space in three dimensions. [source]

C

Cast: an overspread of a color or modification of the appearance of a substance by a trace of some added hue. Also called color cast.

Chroma: Another word for color or hue; the amount of saturation of a color.

Chromatherapy: The use of color for well-being or healing purposes; a lighting system that uses the soothing qualities of color to relax the mind and body.

Chromatic: Relating to or produced by color.

Chromatic Gray: Grays that exhibit a subtle, but discernible hue. 

Clashing Colors: two or more colors that feel jarring, disturbing or unpleasant because they have a garish, off-beat, energetic quality; this is subjective since colors that one person finds appealing might be considered clashing colors by another. Also referred to as discordant colors however while all discordant colors can be referred to as clashing, not all clashing combinations are discordant.

CMYK Color Model: A subtractive color model used in color printing. CMYK refers to the four inks used in some color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (key).

Color: an attribute of an object that produces different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light. 

Color Association of the United States (CAUS): an independent for-profit color forecasting and consulting service.

Color Blindness: more correctly called Color Vision Deficiency, describes a number of different problems people have with their color vision. Color vision deficiency is inherited and more common among men than women -- about 8% of males and less than 1% of females. This condition makes it difficult to distinguish certain colors or different shades of the same color. [source]

Color Cast: an overspread of a color or modification of the appearance of a substance by a trace of some added hue. Also referred to as cast.

Color Combination: is a general term used to describe two or more colors or color families that are used together.

Color Forecasting: a process to determine upcoming consumer interest in certain colors and color palettes with the goal of predicting color trends and providing guidance that manufacturers and vendors can use in producing and marketing goods and services.

Color Marketing Group (CMG): a globally recognized non-profit organization of color professionals who forecast color and design trends.

Color Palette: is a planned arrangement or group of colors meant to be seen as a whole; also called color scheme, color plan or color composition.

Color Proportion: The relationship between colors in an image or design.

Color Scheme: is a planned arrangement or group of colors meant to be seen as a whole; also called color palette, color plan or color composition.

Color Spaces: Refer to the type and number of colors that originate from the combinations of color components of a color model. Examples include: sRGB, CIE, HSB, Pantone, etc.

Color Temperature: The warmth or coolness of a color.

Color Theory: The study of color, types of order, observations, scientific facts, and psychology to explain color and the interactions of colors.

Color Vision Deficiency: often referred to as Color Blindness, describes a number of different problems people have with their color vision. which means their perception of colors is different from what most of us see. Color vision deficiency is inherited and more common among men than women -- about 8% of males and less than 1% of females. This condition makes it difficult to distinguish certain colors or different shades of the same color. [source]

Color Wheel: a diagrammatic representation of a color system in the form of a circle. 

Complement: The color positioned directly across the wheel from any given color on the color wheel. Each color on the wheel has only one complement, also called Direct Complement.

Complementary Contrast: The interaction of one set of complement colors.

Cones: photoreceptor cells in the retina that are sensitive to bright light and color. Cones give us our color vision. They are concentrated in the center of our retina in an area called the macula. There are three types of cone cells: Red-sensing cones (60 percent), Green-sensing cones (30 percent), and Blue-sensing cones (10 percent). [source]

Contrast: Comparison of two or more colors in such a way that enables them to be differentiated. Color Theorist Johannes Itten [learn more about his theories here and here] was one of the first to define the contrasting properties of color. Itten noted seven types of color contrast:

  1. Contrast of Hue: is the contrast between two or more colors. The idea is best illustrated by pure hues in their most intense luminosity. These hues would red/yellow/blue or cyan/magenta/yellow in the subtractive color model or red/green/blue (RGB) in the additive color model. The pure primary colors have the highest contrast. For examples the primaries of red/yellow/blue have greater contrast than the secondaries hues of green/orange/violet, which are less pure. The contrast is lower still between the tertiary colors. The complementary pairs of a primary or secondary color are in higher contrast than a complementary pair of tertiary colors.
  2. Contrast of Temperature: is the contrast created between how cool or how warm a color appears.
  3. Contrast of Value: is the contrast between the lightness or darkness of a color. White and black have the greatest contrast of value. Of the colors on a standard color wheel, yellow has the lightest value of the pure hues, and violet the darkest. The intensity of contrast of value diminishes as the colors become less pure (lower chroma).
  4. Contrast of Saturation: Saturation, or quality, relates to the degree of purity of a color. Contrast of saturation is the contrast between pure, intense colors and dull, diluted colors
  5. Complementary Contrast: Two colors are complementary if their pigments, mixed together produce a neutral gray-black. For example, red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and violet. With light it is the opposite, two complementary colors mix together to produce white. The hues are considered opposite but because of the way our eye and mind work together for us to see color, complementary hues, they are linked together. Complementary hues increase the perceived vividness of their opposite when placed adjacent to one another; when mixed they neutralize each other, lowering their chroma until the colors is no longer visible.
  6. Simultaneous Contrast: Simultaneous contrast results from the fact that for any given color the eye simultaneously requires the complementary color, and generates it spontaneously if it is not already present.
  7. Contrast of extension: involves the relative areas of two or more color patches. It is the contrast between much and little, or great and small..

Cool Colors: are colors that convey coolness to a viewer; in reference to the traditional color wheel, cool colors are green, blue, and purple/violet; and warm colors are red, orange, and yellow.

D

Deutan or Protan Color Vision Deficiency: color blindness due to the loss or limited function of red cone (known as protan) or green cone (deutran) photopigments. This kind of color blindness is commonly referred to as red-green color blindness and is the most common type being found in about 6% of the male population. [source]

Diad: a color combination of two colors that are separated by one color on the color wheel, ex. yellow and green or yellow-orange and red-orange.

Discordant Colors: a combination of colors that are almost but not quite opposites on the color wheel. Ex. Red and green are directly opposite, high contrast colors that equally balance each other. By replacing one of the colors in a complementary pair with the color directly to the right or left of it, such as such as red and yellow-green. the harmony is put off balance, Discordant colors are attention getting combinations that more often used in advertising, graphic design and art than in fashion or interior design. Sometimes called clashing colors.

Double Complement: a color combinations made up of two sets of complementary colors.

E

Earth Tones: This is a phrase that has come to have several meanings. In the broadest sense it includes any color found naturally on earth and includes an entire array of colors. It can also mean any color that includes the natural colors of the earth's ground, originally containing clay, pigments creating colors such as umber, ochre, sand, and sienna. More generally, earth tones, may be used to describe to any neutral or low chroma color.

F

Fad: A short-lived micro-trend that is linked to an overall theme or trend.

Film Color: a vague soft smooth expanse of color (as seen when the eyes are closed or when looking at certain kinds of sky) that appears as nontransparent, not on the surface of an object, and at no definite distance. [source]

Forecasting: The educated prediction or calculation of future events or conditions. See Color Forecasting

Form: A three-dimensional shape with volume.

G

Gray: any mixture of black and white

Grayscale: a full range of values from white to black simplified into a graduated scale.

Ground: the background color in a composition, also called the field color.

H

Color Harmony: a satisfying balance or unity of colors.

Harmony, Objective: a group or arrangement of colors that works according to established color principles.

Harmony, Subjective: a group or arrangement of colors that does not necessarily follow established color principles but is pleasing to the viewer.

High-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that range from mid-value colors to white are called high-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately light values is referred to as high-key.

Hue: the purest and brightest form of a color; a synonym for color

I

Intensity: The brightness or degree of a color’s purity or saturation.

Intermediate Colors: a color that is made by mixing one primary color and an adjacent secondary color; ex. red (primary) and orange(secondary) blended together produce the intermediate color, red-orange; also called tertiary colors.

International Color Authority (ICA): private for-profit organization of color forecasting and consulting located in London.

J

K

Key: the predominant range of values (lightness or darkness) used in a composition, design, or photograph. [See more about color key]

  • High-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that range from mid-value colors to white are called high-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately light values is referred to as high-key.
  • Low-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that range from mid-value colors to black are called low-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately dark values is referred to as low-key.
  • Mid-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that include only the middle values in between high and low key are called mid-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately middle values – not too light and not too dark - is referred to as mid-key. 

L

Light, Natural: The combination of light from the sun, moon, sky, and atmosphere

Line: a continuous mark on a surface, which imparts motion and contour to a design.

Low-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that range from mid-value colors to black are called low-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately dark values is referred to as low-key.

Luminosity: Refers to color’s inherent light; lighter colors are more luminous than darker colors, but a lighter color is not necessarily more pure or saturated.

M

Metamerism: when two colors appear the same under certain lighting conditions but different under other lighting conditions. You may have experienced this as two colors that appeared to be a perfect match in the store don't look like a good match when you look at the colors at home.

Mid-Key: a set of colors or neutrals that include only the middle values in between high and low key are called mid-key colors. A composition created using colors with predominately middle values – not too light and not too dark - is referred to as mid-key.

Monochromatic: of a single color, having a single color, or having tones of one color in addition to a neutral ground. In most designs, a monochromatic scheme includes a combination of tints, tones, and shades from the same family together with black, white and/or gray.

Monochromacy: Complete color blindness where a person doesn’t experience color at all and the clearness of their vision (visual acuity) may also be affected. There are two types: Cone monochromacym, which is a rare form of color blindness resulting from a failure of two of the three cone cell photopigments to work. Rod monochromacy or achromatopsia is another type of monochromacy that is rare and the most severe form of color blindness. It is present at birth. None of the cone cells have functional photopigments. Lacking all cone vision, people with rod monochromacy see the world in black, white, and gray. [source]

Monotone: Having a uniform color.

Mood: The feelings a combination of colors and design elements convey to the viewer.

Motif: A single image or design element that can be repeated to produce a pattern.

Muted Color: A color created by adding black, white, gray or a complement of a hue taking it outside of the prismatic (as pure a hue as possible with pigments, paint, inks, dyes, etc.) range. 

N

Neutral: Without a predominant hue; black, white and gray are true neutrals; achromatic colors; having no hue or chroma.

O

Objective Color: The chemistry, physics, and physiology of color; colorimetry is the science of objective color measurement.

Optical Mixing: When a field of color is composed of small, disparate points of color, the mind fuses the colors into a comprehensible whole.

P

Partitive Color: the result of two or more adjacent colors mixed optically (in your eye and mind) rather than physically mixing the colors. A good example of this is how colors are viewed on a television screen. If the screen was magnified, it would show thousands of individual pixels each with its own color. When the pixels are intermingled our mind mixes the adjacent colors creating new colors that are not found in any of the individual pixels.

Pattern: A repeated motif

Photoreceptors: special cells in the eye’s retina that are responsible for converting light into signals that are sent to the brain. Photoreceptors give us our color vision and night vision. There are two types of photoreceptor cells: rods and cones. [source]  See rods and cones

Polychromatic: many colors or decorated in many colors.

Primary Colors: the three colors from which  all other colors are derived. In the traditional subtractive color system, the primary colors are yellow, blue, and red. In modern subtractive color system, the primary colors are cyan (process blue), magenta (process red), and yellow. In the additive color system the primary colors are red, green, and blue.

Prismatic Color: As pure a hue as possible with pigments, paint, inks, dyes, etc.

Proportion Temperature: The amount of warmth or coolness of a color.

Protan or Deutan Color Vision Deficiency: color blindness due to the loss or limited function of red cone (known as protan) or green cone (deutran) photopigments. This kind of color blindness is commonly referred to as red-green color blindness and is the most common type being found in about 6% of the male population. [source]

Pure Color: Maximum saturation or intensity of color; not mixed with any other color.

R

Recede: To seem to fade into the background.

Relative Temperature: Subtle relationships of the warmth or coolness of a color.

Retina: the light sensitive inner lining of the back of the eye; the retina has two different types of cells that detect and respond to light—rods and cones. These cells that are sensitive to light are called photoreceptors. [source]

RGB Color Model: An additive color model in which red, green, and blue waves of light are added together in various ways to reproduce a broad array of colors.

Rods: photoreceptor cells in the eye (retina) that are sensitive to dim light, but not to color. Rods are sensitive to light levels and help us see in low light. Rods are concentrated in the outer areas of the retina and give us peripheral vision. Rods are 500 to 1,000 times more sensitive to light than cones. The retina has approximately 120 million rods and 6 million cones. [source]

S

Saturation: The intensity or purity of a hue; the color of the greatest purity are those in the spectrum. Words used to describe saturation are vivid, dull, brilliant, dark, deep, light, medium, pale, and weak.

Secondary Hues: Orange, green, purple; the second set of colors made by combining two primary colors but the color’s complement. For example red-blue and red-yellow but not red-green.

Scale: The concept of size relationships.

Shade: a darker value of a color, made by adding black.

Shape: An image that conveys area.

Simultaneous Contrast: When two colors come into contact, the contrast intensifies the difference between them.

Simultaneous Contrast: results from the fact that for any given color the eye simultaneously seeks out the complementary color, and generates it spontaneously if it is not already present.

Chromatic Simultaneous Contrast: Simultaneous Contrast concerning color changes that occur due to the influence of the surrounding colors

Space: in design, it refers to the distance, void, or interval between objects.

Spatial Effect: The way to describe how colors are perceived in a space as advancing or receding.

Spectrum: a continuum of color formed when a beam of white light is dispersed (as by passage through a prism) so that its component wavelengths are arranged in order. Also called color spectrum.

Split Complement: One color paired with the two colors on either side of the original color’s direct complement, also known as Divided Complement.

Stain: to suffuse with color.

Subjective Color: The psychological, cultural, symbolic meanings of color.

Subtractive Color, Traditional: the color system most people learned about in school. It is the system of mediums such as pigments, dyes, inks, and paints. The primary colors are yellow, blue, and red, and when you mix these colors together, you get black. This model is sometimes referred to as the RYB based on the standard set of subtractive primary colors used for mixing pigments. It is still used in art education but in more modern color theory Cyan replaces Blue and Magenta replaces Red.

Subtractive Color, Modern: the color system uses pigments, dyes, inks, and paints but the primary colors are cyan (process blue), magenta (process red), and yellow. This CMY system is widely used in the printing. However, it is necessary to add black because due to the impurity of pigments, when the three primaries are mixed together they produce a color that is more brownish than black. The letters CMYK are used when including black. "K" was chosen rather than "B" to avoid confusion with blue. The printers model is also called process color or four color printing

Symbolism: Visual imagery to represent a message or concept.

Synesthesia: A perceptual condition in which there is an involuntary blending of one or more senses.

T

Tertiary Colors: a color that is made by mixing one primary color and an adjacent secondary color; ex. red (primary) and orange(secondary) blended together produce the intermediate color, red-orange; also called intermediate colors.

Tetrad Colors: a combinations of two complementary pairs of colors with none of the colors being adjacent on the color wheel. Ex. Yellow, Purple, Green, and Blue.

Texture: a surface quality of roughness or smoothness: texture may be actual or implied.

Tincture: a substance that colors, dyes, or stains (archaic).

Tinge: a slight staining or suffusing shade or color.

Tint: the lighter value of a color created when a hue is blended with white.

Tone: a color created when a hue is blended with gray; adding gray quiets or tones down a color.

Tritan Color Vision Deficiency: color blindness due to the loss or limited function of blue-cones (tritan) photopigments; blue-yellow color blindness is rarer than red-green color blindness, known as Deutan or Protan Color Vision Deficiency. [source]

Trend: A general course, direction, movement, or prevailing tendency.

Triad or Triadic Colors: a combination of three hues that are equally spaced from one another around the color wheel. Ex. Red, Yellow, Blue or Green, Purple, Orange.

U


V

Value: refers to the lightness or darkness of a color and defines a color in terms of how close it is to white or black/ High and low are ways of describing value. The lighter the color, the higher the value; the darker the color the lower the value.

Visible Spectrum: is defined as the wavelengths of light that are visible to the human eyes; the range of colors that can be perceived by the human eye.

W

Warm Colors: are colors that convey warmth to a viewer; in reference to the traditional color wheel, warm colors are red, orange, and yellow; and cool colors are green, blue, and purple/violet.

Wavelength: light is measured by its wavelength (in nanometers) or frequency (in hertz). One wavelength. equals the distance between two successive wave crests.

White: is not part of the visual spectrum but 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 mind sees is the color we call white. An easy way to think about this is that white includes every color of light.

X

Xanthic: of or relating to a yellow or yellowish color.

Help Make the Color Terminology Glossary Even Better

Join me in creating a resource that can help us all to better understand colors by creating clear definitions of color terminology. Leave a comment to let me know if there are any words you would like to see added to the list or if there are any definitions you don't think are completely clear.

Thanks in advance for your help and support,

Read Time: 15 min
  • Vicky Brown says:

    This is a great list and very helpful. Thanks for putting it together.

    • Kate Smith says:

      It makes me happy to know you found the terminology list helpful, Vicky. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

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