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A Glossary of Color Theory Terminology by QuikShip Toner

A Glossary of Color Theory Terminology by QuikShip Toner

  Written By Janelle Sullivan


One cannot discuss art without first discussing, and understanding, color. Artists have been praised and cursed for their use of color, and the determining factor in an artist's reputation is often how aptly they understand and utilize color. For those who are not artists, however, a rudimentary understanding of color theory is enough to be able to appreciate art and nature in ways we did not know existed. This article will walk you through the basics of color theory and the most important terms to know within the field. You'll be effortlessly talking about the finer points of Andy Warhol's work in no time!

Analogous Color – Analogous colors are those which are found right next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous colors are commonly found in nature, and an example of one such set would be red, red-orange, and orange.


Complementary Colors – Two colors which are directly across from one another on the color wheel. An example of complementary colors would be red and green. Because the colors highlight each other so well, it is important to reserve their usage for only detail work. Should you create a poster in entirely complementary colors, it would be overwhelming to the viewer.


Cool Colors –
Cool colors are those which are said to have a sort of relaxing effect. Blue, green, and purple are some examples of cool colors.


Hue – Hue is just another name for a primary, secondary, or tertiary color. A hue is the basis for all tints, tones, and shades.


Monochromatic Color – Monochromatic colors are those colors which are all derived from one hue. By adding tints, shades, and tones to the hue, the range of workable colors expands dramatically. Monochromatic colors work well with each other due to this common origin point.


Primary Colors – Simply put, primary colors are the three colors that cannot be created by mixing any other ones. The primary colors consist of red, blue, and yellow. It is from these three that all secondary colors are created.


Saturation – Saturation refers to how vivid a certain color is. An example of a highly saturated color would be one of the primary colors, like red or green. A tinted or shaded red would be said to have less saturation, by contrast.


Secondary Colors – These are colors created by combining two primary colors. The secondary colors include green, orange, and purple.


Shades – Shades are the contrasts to tints. To create a shade, a certain level of black is added to a pure color.


Split Complementary Colors – Split complementary colors utilize one main color, or base color, along with two colors that are directly adjacent to the main color's complementary color. With split complementary colors, it is possible to achieve a strong visual contrast without the high level of color tension that accompanies the usage of complementary colors.


Square Colors –
Square colors are similar to tetradic colors, with the exception that the four colors will be evenly spaced around the color wheel. Because of the high level of contrast within the colors, it is best to pick one color to act as the dominant color, and to use the remaining three to accent that main color.


Tertiary Colors – Tertiary colors are created by combining primary and secondary colors. They commonly appear on the color wheel alongside primary and secondary colors.


Tetradic (Rectangle) Colors – Tetradic colors, like triad colors, are so named for the visual pattern that they may be found in on a color wheel. A tetradic color set will include four colors, grouped in two pairs of complementary colors. Usage can be tricky, since a tetradic set will feature both warm and cool colors.


The Color Wheel – Designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666, the color wheel is a clever visual way to remember the relationship between primary and secondary colors. A circle is divided into six "pie slices", and the colors are placed in the following order, one after another: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. This becomes a critical tool for beginning artists when exploring complementary colors, because almost any selection of colors from within the wheel will work together harmoniously. The traditional color wheel has twelve colors: the original six and the gradations in-between, known as tertiary colors.


Tints – A tint is a pure color, or hue, which has had a certain level of white added to it. It is tinting which can transform orange into a light peachy color.


Tones – Rounding out the work of the neutral colors, tones are created when a pure color is mixed with a specific level of gray.


Triad Colors – Triad colors, as the name suggests, are a combination of three colors that are evenly spaced within the color wheel. They offer a good amount of visual variety for a color scheme, even if using less saturated colors. To be used most effectively used, one color should feature as the "main" color and the other two should be used to accent that "main" color.


Value - The value of a color, or hue, refers to how light or dark the color is. If a hue has more tint to it, then the value is lighter. If a hue has shade to it, then the value is darker. In short, value is the measurement of the amount of tint, shade, or tone added to a color.


Warm Colors – Warm colors are a favorite for focal points in artistic creations, and in contrast to cool colors, warm colors tend to give off a feeling of energy, and can be very forceful upon the eye. Red, orange, and yellow are warm colors.

  • Color Theory – Learn about subtractive color, additive color, and a few other more advanced principles of color theory with this informative page provided by New York University. There are picture guides to help with the concepts as well!
  • Color and Graphics (PDF) – Explore color harmony in more depth with this textbook excerpt from Kent State University. You'll also learn how colors translate onto the web and some practical color applications therein.
  • Basic Color Theory (PDF) – Looking for a few examples of color harmony in nature? Look no further – this short handout from Texas A&M University covers some of the basics.
  • Hue, Value, and Intensity – Understanding these three concepts can be difficult without some visual examples. Riverside Community College has you covered with this useful article on hue, value, and intensity. This is a particularly valuable resource for those who create or are interested in computer art, since it uses swatches from Photoshop to demonstrate the principles.
  • Color Calculator – Half the fun of learning something is being able to put it into use. Sessions College has an online color calculator that will allow you to create your own color harmonies for use in your art or just for experimenting kicks.
  • Color Theory and Pixels & Bytes (PDF) – Dive deeper into the world of color theory and discover how color has been translated into art on the World Wide Web. This comprehensive handout comes courtesy of Simmons College.
  • Color Systems – The color wheel is a useful tool for examining color, but it is by no means the only one available. Learn about the Prang Color System and the Munsell Color Wheel in this online article from the University of Wisconsin.
  • Design Notes: Color – Discover light theory and the physics behind color in this informative article from Palomar College. There are many useful charts and diagrams included to help supplement the descriptions.
  • Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements PDF – Long before the invention of the color wheel, the ancient Greeks were trying to figure out color. Read more about their theories and how they understood color in this fascinating paper from the University of Massachusetts.
  • Color Principles: Hue, Saturation, and Value – North Carolina State University has an excellent resource that explains the scientific principles behind hue, saturation, and value, complete with multiple graphs and tables to facilitate learning. If you're only going to read one page on color principles, make it this one.
  • Color in the Landscape – Color theory isn't just useful for art. You can use these principles for garden design as well. This article from the University of Florida walks you through which colors work well together, and how you can use the color wheel to influence your own personal world.
  • Goethe's Color Theory – You've probably heard of Goethe if you're interested in literature. However, this famous writer had his own views on color theory, and you can take a look at a diagram that shows how he thought colors ought to be organized.
  • Intro to Color Theory – Need to understand color theory in a hurry? Khan Academy has a quick four-minute video that walks you through the basics.
  • Color Theory Expanded – Ever heard of color inversion? Learn about this neat trick for determining color opposites and refresh your understanding of color theory with this page from ThinkQuest.
  • Color Theory and Color Models – There are 2D color models, like the color wheel, but what of the 3D color models, like the HSL structure? There are fantastic color resources that most people don't know about, and they're all neatly compiled in one place. Follow the progressive history of color models with this excellent visual article.


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