Hue Value Chroma Explained

When you think 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 and the characteristics of hue value chroma.

hue value chroma of individual colors

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 successfully, you need to consider their characteristics to determine compatibility.

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

Hue Value Chroma

Hue distinguishes one color from another and is described using common color names such as green, blue, red, yellow, etc. 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. 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 the strength of the original hue.

Hue, value, and chroma are just technical-sounding terms for the way you talk about colors 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 and creating color harmonies for any project.

Let's look at each characteristic and explore how hue value chroma work together to define every color.

12 Pure Hue Value Chroma

What Does Hue of Color Mean?

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 - yellow, red, blue, green, etc.

What is the Difference Between Hue and Color?

Color is a term used to describe every variation of hue or neutral that we see. Hue 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.

Black Gray and White Colors

Is Black a Hue? Is White a Hue? What About Gray

Since black, white, and gray are not part of the visual spectrum, they are not hues; however, both color and hue are words commonly used to define all of the colors we see. Don't allow the misuse of the term hue to confuse you. Black, white, and gray are not hues.

What Does Value Mean in Color Theory?

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.

What Color has the Highest Value? What Color has the Lowest Value?

High and low are ways of describing value. The lighter the color, the higher the value; the darker the color, the lower its value. White is the color with the highest value; black is the color with the lowest value.

No color has a higher value than white, and no color has a lower value than black. The value of all colors is somewhere between the values of black and white.

Value Perception

Value in art, design, painting

It is the change in value that gives you the ability to see objects as three-dimensional. In the illustration above, the circle on the left is a solid color and appears flat. The lighter and darker areas of the circle in the middle give it dimension, and you see it as a sphere.

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

These three circles are all flat. It is this change in value that gives 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.

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 shift the value by adding another color, but that can also alter the color, so, for now, we will look only at changing a color's value with black, white, and gray.

Hue Value Chart for Red Blue Yellow

In theory, adding white, black, or gray to a hue does not change the color; it only adjusts the value (lightness or darkness). 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.

What is the Importance of Value in Painting, Art, and Design?

The contrast of values guides your perception of space, and changes in value give you the ability to see objects as three-dimensional. Whenever you look at anything, your mind compares the values you see, focusing on the differences in lightness and darkness. Your brain recognizes these value patterns and interprets what you see based on prior knowledge of how the light hits objects and creates areas of light and shadow. It is the information stored in your memory bank that gives a flat shape the appearance of being three-dimensional. In the illustration above, a flat circle with a particular pattern of values is seen as a sphere. The value of the surrounding colors is what gives you the information you need to know whether the sphere is floating in space or sitting on a surface.

Paul Klee used hue value chroma in creating his painting Crystal Gradation

Paul Klee [Public domain] Crystal Gradation, 1921

Paul Klee used hue value chroma to create his painting, Crystal Gradation, shown above.

"For many artists, colors sing to them but the colors sing so loudly that they cannot hear value whispering." - Bonnie Auten, CPSA Artist

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What is a Color 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 to see the value of a color, you can use 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.

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.

Value Scale also known as a 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.

This brings 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. The human eye does not easily detect the differences, so these terms are all ways of describing the same characteristic of color. In fact, 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.

In the diagram below, 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.

Hue Value Chroma Chart

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 becomes 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.

What is a Pure Hue?

A pure hue is one that is unmixed with another hue, color, or neutral. Think of the purity of color in the same way you would with gold. 24 karat gold is 100% pure gold. 18 karat is 18 parts gold and six parts of another metal. It is still called gold, but some types are purer than others.

The same 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 red with a tiny amount of gray, it would be difficult to see the color change, but the red would no longer be pure. It could be 97% red and 3% gray, for example. Continue adding gray, and the amount of redness continues to diminish. As red becomes a smaller percentage of the whole, the color is less red and is less saturated (lower chroma) than pure red.

What is the difference between chroma and value?

Chroma is the attribute of color that expresses its purity. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color and defines a color in terms of how close it is to white or black. Chroma and value are independent characteristics of color. For example, a color with a low chroma can have a light value while another low chroma color can have a dark value.

Red Hue Value Chroma Chart

The closer to pure red, the higher the chroma: the closer to black, white or gray, the lower the chroma

Mixing a pure hue with black, white, gray, or any other color reduces its chroma and lowers the strength of the original hue. The higher the chroma, the more pure the color. The lower the chroma, the less pure the color.

The color in the square next to white is high value (light) and low chroma (it does not contain very much pure red). The color in the square next to black is also low chroma but is very dark giving it a low value.

Key Points to Remember: Hue Value Chroma

  • Learn to identify the hue, value, and chroma 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 colors.
  • 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 correct values can make all the difference in creating your best designs and artwork.
  • 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 colors 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 familiar with chroma. It is that you use other words to communicate this characteristic of color. Don't let color terminology intimidate you. You have seen these characteristics for your whole life. Now you are just learning the proper terms. You've got this!

Did You Find this Lesson Helpful? Do You Still Have Questions About Hue Value Chroma? 

Leave a comment below to let me know. I want this 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.

Feature Image Credit: Jacobolus [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Color Theory Tutorial

You are currently on Lesson 1: Hue Value Chroma Explained

Go to Lesson 2: Understanding the Color Wheel

Jump to Lesson 3: Creating Color Harmony

Head to Lesson 4: Color Temperature

Skip Ahead to Lesson 5: How to Identify Undertones

On to Lesson 6: High Key, Low Key Color Combinations

Appendix 1: Color Terminology Glossary


Read Time: 11 min
  • Rod says:

    Very Nice. Thanks for sharing.

  • puika chung says:

    I am a beginner in learning colour, I think this article is very precise and easy to understand, very useful! Thank you for writing such great article!

  • P.boy says:

    Hi👋 .it was huge and helpful to identifying colors easier and helpful lessons for design , making colors whith chromatic colors and describe a scene . Thank you
    Parsa.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thank you for your kind comment. 🙂

  • Robyn says:

    Hi Kate, I THINK I’M CONFUSED. Does Chroma only apply to hue. Do all colours have chroma? Is brown a hue? Or a colour? It’s a mix of red&green, so if brown is 50% red & 50% green & both those hues have lower chroma than their original pure hues, can brown have a pure chroma. I’m thinking of chroma as along physics lines as being the strength(purity?) of the wavelength being given off (if that makes any sense!). Am I on the right wavelength?(pardon the pun). Love these lessons – have been in love with colour all my life and these lessons are just heaven in a website!!!

    • Kate Smith says:

      I’m so glad you found your way to my website, Robyn and thanks for your question. Chroma applies to all colors, not just the pure hues. There is no brown hue or pure brown. Brown is always a mixture of two colors. Red and green are commonly how people mix paint to make brown but there are other ways. I will put this on my list of future lessons. Brown by its nature has low chroma. Have you ever heard of bright brown? No, brown is a neutral derived from blending other colors and therefore is never high chroma Yes, chroma is about the purity of the color. The purer the color the higher the chroma. That is why both light and dark colors can have low chroma. If you mix red with lots of white you create a low chroma red, which we refer to as pink. If you mix lots of black with red you will get a very low chroma color that you might call black cherry. These two colors have very different values (lightness/darkness) but are both low chroma colors. I hope that helps you to make sense of chroma.

  • Nathan says:

    Nice Tutorial

    • Kate Smith says:

      Thank you, Nathan.

  • Wyatt DePoy says:

    This helped a lot!! Thank you!!

    • Kate Smith says:

      You’re very welcome, Wyatt!

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