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Color Glossary

Color is such a fun thing to look at and enjoy but it is often difficult to communicate about. The reason is that the words we use to describe color are vague and frequently misunderstood. Not only are technical terms such as "value," "saturation" and "chromaticity" confusing but even simple words such as "bright," "pure," "shiny" and "dim" are hard to use accurately. Even the experts struggle without a set of standardized definitions.

We have tried to compile a glossary containing the words and concepts stated above and although we do not propose to be the sole authority on color, the definitions you find here are supported by other mathematical and scientific arguments (stated in Color Theory). Please let us know if any of terms you wnat to learn about are not here. Also, the Teachers' Guide is also a good source for understanding simplified color terms.

Hue: This is what we usually mean when we ask "what color is that?" The property of color that we are actually asking about is "hue". For example, when we talk about colors that are red, yellow, green, and blue, we are talking about hue. Different hues are caused by different wavelengths of light. Therefore, this aspect of color is usually easy to recognize. Click for a more in-depth explanation of HUE.

Contrast of Hue Hue Contrast - strikingly different hues

Hue Constancy Hue Constant - different colors, same hue (blue)


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Color Basics
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More learning with the
Dimensions of Color

Chromaticity: Think about a color's "purity" when describing its "chromaticity" or "CHROMA". This property of color tells us how pure a hue is. That means there is no white, black, or gray present in a color that has high chroma. These colors will appear very vivid and well, ... pure. This concept is related to and often confused with saturation. However, we will continue to use these terms separately because they refer to distinct situations, as explained here.

High Chroma High Chroma - very shiny, vivid

Low Chroma Low Chroma - achromatic, no hue

Constant Chroma Constant Chroma - medium chroma
Similar vividness despite differences in hue; less purity than top image.


Saturation: Related to chromaticity, saturation tells us how a color looks under certain lighting conditions. For instance, a room painted a solid color will appear different at night than in daylight. Over the course of the day, although the color is the same, the saturation changes. This property of color can also be called intensity. Be careful not to think about SATURATION in terms of light and dark but rather in terms of pale or weak and pure or strong.

Saturation Constant Saturation Const. - same intensity, different hues

Contrast of Saturation Saturation Contrast - various levels of fullness, same hue


Value: When we describe a color as "light" or "dark", we are discussing its value or "brightness". This property of color tells us how light or dark a color is based on how close it is to white. For instance, canary yellow would be considered lighter than navy blue which in turn is lighter than black. Therefore, the value of canary yellow is higher than navy blue and black. Click here to find out why humans are very sensitive to a color's VALUE/BRIGHTNESS.

Low Constant Value Low Value, Constant - same brightness level

Contrast of Value Contrast of Value - grayscale = no chroma

Contrast of Value Contrast of Value - stark differences in brightness


Luminance: Although brightness is often used interchangably with luminance, we prefer to use the term "lightness." This concept deals with many of the same variables as value but using a different mathematical equation. Check out our own definition of LUMINANCE/LIGHTNESS or more simply, think about the Color Wheel as colors having equal luminance. Adding white will increase lightness and adding black will decrease it.

Go to the Dimensions of Color Screensaver for an illustrated example.


Tints, Tones and Shades: These terms are often used inappropriately but they describe fairly simple color concepts. The important thing to remember is how the color varies from its original hue. If white is added to a color, the lighter version is called a "tint". If the color is made darker by adding black, the result is called a "shade". And if gray is added, each gradation gives you a different "tone."

bloxtints.jpg (1627 bytes) Tints (adding white to a pure hue)

bloxshades.jpg (1717 bytes) Shades (adding black to a pure hue)

bloxtones.jpg (1651 bytes) Tones (adding gray to a pure hue)


Complementary Colors: When two or more colors "go together," they are said to be "complementary." This is completely subjective and open to interpretation and differences in opinion. A more exact definition is "any two colors that, when mixed together produce a neutral gray (paints/pigments) or white (light).


Primary Colors: This definition really depends on what type of medium of color we are using. The colors that are seen when sunlight is split by a prism are sometimes called the spectral colors. These are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. These ROYGBIV colors are often reduced to three "red, green, and blue-violet" which are the primary colors for the additive color system (light). The primary colors for the subtractive color system (paint/pigment) are "cyan, magenta and yellow." Notice that "red, yellow and blue" should never be used as the combination for color primaries!

RGB, CMYK, HSL: Different color systems are used for different color conditions depending on how the color is created. When using projected light, RGB or red/green/blue, is the governing system. For color that is mixed with paints, pigments or inks on fabric, paper, canvas or some other material, CMY or cyan/magenta/yellow, is the color model. Because these pure pigments tend to be quite expensive, Black, symbolized by "K", is substituted for equal parts of CMY to lower costs of ink. Another major color system is HSL or hue/satuation/lightness. This system has many variants switching saturation with chroma, luminance with value etc. but is usually consistent with how the human eye sees color.

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