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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
Très contente de découvrir votre site et le petit truc étonnant que j’ai découvert c’est que la couleur jaune avec l’ajout de noir devient vert olive et c’est un des symboles que vous avez codé pour moi.
English via Google Translate:
Very happy to discover your site and the amazing little thing I discovered is that the yellow color with the addition of black becomes olive green and this is one of the symbols you coded for me
Je suis heureux que vous ayez trouvé Sensational Color, aussi.
This was such a helpful article! Thank you! It explained it more clearly than most of the resources I’ve found.
My pleasure, Diane. I’m happy you found my article helpful.
This is such an excellent guide-very well explained with perfect examples
When is this written? When is this published? If you don’t mine me asking.
The article was initially published online in 2007 and has been updated many times, including in 2023.
Ce n’est qu un grand plaisir que j’ai découvert votre site .je voudrais aquerir les bases de la théorie des couleurs pour commencer à travailler.
Explications claires, instructiveset simples que je n’ai pas trouvé ailleurs. La façon que vous présenter les couleurs nous incite a explorer ce monde vaste et magnifique qui s appelle peinture
Bravo et merci !!!!
It is my great pleasure that I discovered your site. I would like to acquire the basics of color theory to start working. You have given clear, informative, and simple explanations that I have not found elsewhere. The way you present the colors encourages us to explore the vast and beautiful world called painting. Bravo and thank you!!!!
Merci, merci, merci!
This lesson is great and everything is way clearer, especially value vs chroma. The last image probably explains the difference the best. Thank you so much!
My pleasure, Viki. Thanks for taking the time to leave your positive comment.
Thank you so much, I’m so glad that I have learned a lot. I was confused. You’re an amazing artist.
So happy my explanation was helpful. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Thanks, Kate
Your lesson on hue, value, chroma was clear and concise. It took out the mystery and confusion about color theory for me. A great lesson! Thank you very much.
It is great to know that my explanation of hue, value, and chroma was helpful to you. Thanks for taking the time to let me know. Kate
I loved your informative and helpful article!Yet I still do not understand white itself… does it have high chroma due to its purity? is white pure? It seems so, but in your article you mention that if a hue gets closer to white or black it’s chroma is lessened. Does it have low chroma then? Does white use colors with high chroma?
Still confused by color…. As you can tell.
White can be confusing. Pure black, white, and gray do not have chroma, which is another word for color.
Don’t get chroma confused with value. White has the highest value (lightness or darkness).
If you mix a little bit of blue with white, the resulting color won’t have very much blue and thus be low chroma. I hope that helps.
This is fantastic! Truly makes color theory understandable. Thank you!
I would like to piggyback on all the compliments above. Thank you immensely for sharing your knowledge. I have one question and one suggestion:
1. What about the terms tone, tint and shade? How are they different from hue, chroma and value?
2. A practical exercise at the end of your article would be helpful to determine if the reader truly understands the concepts.
This is the most comprehensive, detailed and easy-to-understand article I have read on the characteristics of color. I felt like I have found gold in understanding color. I am going to go through all the sessions. Thank you very much for creating this series of blogs.
Thank you for the compliment, Grace. I’m happy you found the information helpful.
I am so happy I found this website! A ton of important information and I love the section on quotes from artists about color!
I’m glad you found your way to my site, too, Reena. Welcome!
I read 1 and 2 and immediately decided to bookmark your site. It is a lot of information beautifully presented. It will take careful study and review to get the greatest value from it, but will be well worth the effort. Thank you for presenting it.
Very clear explanations, thank you.
This is the best article I’ve found so far on understanding the dimensions of color. Thank you so much for putting it out here!!
Other website are just repeating the color theory and I nothing new. This is very in-depth, and I got more interested in colors! Thank you sir
Thank you for your glowing compliment!
What happens when you mix two pure hues like red and blue or red and yellow – is chroma affected?
In pure color (light), you would not lower the chroma per se but just shift the hue to violet or orange hue.
thank you Kate so much for this – actually, the whole webpage! 🙂 It is hard to find quality content on the internet, to be honest, and this article is very understandable and detailed.
My question is slightly similar to the one above, but I just want to be sure – when can you say that the colour is pure if, for instance, green is a mixture of blue and red?
I.e. – in general, when is the colour called “pure” (or 100 % chroma)?
Thank you for the answer!
Brilliant stuff. Thank you! I may have misunderstood what I was reading, but I was wondering if there was a possible typo in the section called “One Hue Many Values”. It seems that the top row in the figure for each color gets lighter as you move from left to right, and the bottom row gets darker. However, I understand the descriptive bullet points to be saying the opposite. Am I missing something?
Finally, I am grasping the concept of chroma. This was very helpful.
I’m happy you found this information helpful, Brandi. You are not alone. Many people find it challenging to grasp the concept of chroma and I enjoy learning that my explanation makes it a bit easier. Thanks for taking time to comment.
Very informative and help ful.Great article observed over the internet!👍👍👍👍
Your comment made my day that much nicer, thank you.
So, if I understand correctly, to turn the Chroma of Blue towards Grey, I would only use black? Or Can use White and Black?
Thanks for your knowledge:)
You can use black, black and white, or the complementary color.
I am an elementary Art teacher writing curriculum. What an amazing resource!!! Thank you for taking the time to write such a through explanation of color!
My pleasure. I appreciate your thoughtful comment.
A very nice website. I really feel a little energized after reading your color concepts. It is also a soothing thought in mind that whenever I have a confusion, I can always come back here to clear my confusions. I am a budding artist and also an art teacher.
Thank you sooooo much.
Thank you! Keep working on your art and teaching. You are making the world a more beautiful place.
Reading this, I feel I have not really learnt anything colour over the years, nobody teach you this in college, not in my country..
Thank you. 🙂
This was helpful
This article was really very helpful to remove my confusion of different aspects of color and to understand hue,value,chroma and much more how to see colors.Complex theory very well explained.I’m happy that I landed on ur website, so much to learn.Thanks a lot.
Thank you for your wonderful comment, Syamala. I’m very happy that the explanation I provided was helpful.
Thanks for this, love it
It’s very informative.
Is there a web-based tool or app. to determine the value of a hue relative to the 11-step standardized grayscale? It’s a bit of a bother to have to manually guess for each sample hue. Also, how does one assign a value to a hue if the value is in between two of the standardized gray scale steps?
I bet there is one but no tool immediately comes to mind. The value scale is most often used to help you see the differences in value between two colors so it is less important to know an exact value and more important to be able to see a value as compared to the values that surround it. Being able to see value differences is often said to be one of the most important difference between a good and great artist.
Yes, you can buy value scale card on Amazon (about 4×6”) that you overlay in colors to determine the exact numerical scale number. About $6. and very useful!
Is there a specific name for describing the colors created when mixing complimentary colors together like red and green or orange and blue? Like low chroma is when you add grey to a hue, low saturation is when you add white, and low intensity is when you add black. I’m asking because there is definitely a change in chroma of a hue but also a hue shift.
You are correct about a visible hue shift in addition to a change in chroma but that is due to the limitations of pigments. For example, if you mist black and yellow it turns greenish. As for a name for mixing complementary colors, in theory it would be gray. In actual practice, brown is what I often use or simply neutral (insert hue). Brown has been given a specific meaning from the time we were kids but mixing any two neutrals makes a brown — with the cool is more dominant it leans more towards greige and if warm, it leans more to what we have come to know as brown. Understanding the difference between theory and actual practice of using colors can be confusing because pigments don’t always act as we might expect.
This was exactly what I was searching for. I’ve been trying to understand chroma for days but not having much success. The red green diagram was so helpful. Now I can finally do my homework.
Thanks, the concept is complex but your explanation was clarifying.
Great explanation of Hue, Chroma and Value, thank you so much!!
Hello, very cool and nice website. Im learning too much
and many concepts are clearer to me. I have a doubt in this lesson … If the value is the result of eliminating the hue we can imagine that a grayscale image better illustrates this concept, right? Is it valid that I open the scheme of “changes in chroma and value” in Photoshop, convert it to grayscale and measure the values in each row from red to green to verify that their values are the same? Thinking that this is possible, I do the exercise, but apparently in a horizontal way throughout each row the values do change, they do not remain constant. Is it because the image of the diagram is not in high resolution or is it that the exercise is not valid? Thank you.
Very Nice. Thanks for sharing.
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!
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
Thank you for your kind comment. 🙂
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!!!
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.
Your explanation on chroma here is so easy for me to understand. Thank you so much ,Kate!
Thanks for letting me know, Daya. It always makes me happy to know that I have made it easeir for someone to understand colors. 🙂
Thank you, Nathan.
This helped a lot!! Thank you!!
You’re very welcome, Wyatt!