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How to Understand the Qualities of Color

Nov 25, 2007
Let us consider color as an artist sees and uses it. Color has three main qualities: hue, value and intensity.

Qualities of Color

If we look at any given color analytically - the red of an apple, for instance - we discover that it possesses three outstanding characteristics or qualities. First, there is that quality by which we recognize one color from another, and which we suggest by its name. This we call "hue." The apple is red; red is the hue (name) of the color. Remember the equation: "Hue equals Name."

We can alter the hue of a color by mixing another color with it. If we mix red pigment with yellow pigment, we produce orange pigment; this is a change of hue.

Next comes the quality by which we discern lightness or darkness in a color. This we call "value." It is by value that we are able to discriminate between light red and dark red.

By mixing a color with something lighter or darker than itself, we change its value. If we mix black or white (or water, in the case of watercolor pigments) with a color, we change its value but not its hue.

A color in its full, natural strength may be called a "normal" color or a color of "normal" value. If lighter, we call it a "tint"; if darker, a "shade." These latter terms are so often abused that some authorities prefer the substitution of the word "value," as a "light value of blue" rather than a "tint of blue," or a "dark value of green" rather than a "shade of green."

Thirdly, some colors are strong and some weak. The quality by which we distinguish strength or weakness in a color is called "intensity." If we remark that an object is colorful or strong in color, we refer to its intensity.

We can change the intensity of a normal color by mixing it with other hues; this tends to dull or gray it. We can change intensity without changing value or hue by the addition of neutral gray of equal value.
This quality which we call "intensity" is also called "chroma" or "saturation" and the value of a color is sometimes termed "brightness" or "lightness." Though these particular differences in terminology are of slight consequence to the average artist, they emphasize the unfortunate confusion of terms which exists in the entire field of color.

"Tone" is a word of ambiguous meaning which is often employed in a general way to include all normal colors, tints and shades. Some authorities, however, use it to refer specifically to grayed values of any hue. Thus, color mixed with white would be described as a tint; color mixed with black, a shade; and color mixed with both black and white, a tone. If these words were always used in just this way, it would doubtless be easier to communicate color distinctions more accurately than we now do, but in common usage all three words are used almost interchangeably.

Texture, though not truly a quality of color, as are hue, value and intensity, is so closely related to these qualities that it must be considered along with them. If one paints an object, he must keep in mind its shape and character as revealed by its color (hue, value and intensity) and texture. The light and shade on objects can be thought of as agents for the expression of shape and texture, as modifiers of color.

Even in non-objective paintings texture is a very important factor; since there is no subject interest, texture is often one of the painting's chief attributes. In fact, some non-objective painters are noted primarily for the textures they achieve with unusual materials such as sand or mud, or the fact that they apply their pigments in some unorthodox way, such as dribbling, which creates a particular textural effect.

For the beginning artist, the above discussion will give the basic outline of terms that are used to describe color. A grasp of these basics will pave the way to greater understanding in his own use of color in his work.
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