The Language of Color: Glossary of Painting Terms

Color is often difficult to communicate about. The reason is that the words we use to describe color are vague and frequently misunderstood. Technical terms such as “value,” “saturation,” and “chromaticity”  are confusing but even simple words such as “bright,” “pure,” “shiny” and “dim” are hard to use accurately.  I’ve started compiling a glossary containing the words and concepts to help you understand the terminology of color.

The name of the color family, for example, red. This is what we usually mean when we ask “what color is that?”

Hue Contrast – strikingly different hues

Hue Constant – different colors, same hue (blue)

The lightness or darkness of a color.  When we describe a color as “light” or “dark”, we are discussing its value or “brightness.” Variations include tints, tones, and shades.

Low Value, Constant- same brightness level

Contrast of Value – grayscale = no chroma

Contrast of Value – stark differences in brightness

A color that has been lightened by adding white only.

A color that has been modified by adding gray (both black and white).

A color that has been darkened by adding black only.

The brightness or dullness of a color based on the purity of the color. 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.

High Chroma – very shiny, vivid

Low Chroma- achromatic, no hue

Constant Chroma – medium chroma

Related to chromaticity, saturation tells us how a color looks under certain lighting conditions. For example, 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 Const. – same intensity, different hues

Saturation Contrast – various levels of fullness, same hue

Warm Colors

Reds, oranges, and yellows.

Cool Colors
Greens, blues and violets.

A color scheme which uses various values of one color.

A colorless scheme which uses only blacks, whites and grays.

Terms of the Color Wheel

Primary Colors
Red, yellow and blue. These colors cannot be made by mixing other colors together.

Secondary Colors
Orange, green and violet. These colors are created by mixing two primary colors together.

Tertiary Colors
The color achieved by mixing one primary and one secondary color. These are also called intermediate colors.

Adjacent Colors
These are colors located next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow, yellow-green and yellow-orange.

Complementary Colors
These are colors opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green, or blue and orange.

Split Complements
Selecting one color and using the color located on each side of its complementary color, such as blue with red-orange and yellow-orange.