Hues, Tints, Tones, Shades: All Those Color Terms Are About to Get Way Less Confusing

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What's with all the different words for color? There's hue, tint, tone and shade — not to mention color. It gets confusing. But here's the deal: Each of these terms has its own specific meaning, and once you get a handle on that, everything gets much easier.

If you're a painter, knowing how to use each of those terms is important for communicating concepts in your artwork. This knowledge also comes in handy when you're color mixing , and helps you figure out how to combine the right paints to get the effects you want.

Let's get the first term out of the way: Hue. It's a word that seems more complicated than it is. A hue is just a color. More specifically, a hue is any color on the color wheel . You’re probably familiar with the color wheel, but here's a refresher.

The three primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Chances are, you know that combining any two of those colors will give you one of the secondary colors: Red and blue make violet, yellow and blue make green, and red and yellow make orange. A third set of colors, the tertiary colors, fill in the six gaps between the primary and secondary colors: red-orange, blue-green, red-violet and so on. Tertiary colors are pretty simple to figure out based on their names, so we won’t cover them here.

Colors on exact opposites of the color wheel are known as complementary colors . Mixing a color with its complement will give you a muddy brown.

You may have noticed that black and white are not colors on the color wheel. That means they're not hues. So where do they fit in when it comes to mixing colors?

Black and white have an important role to play. When you mix white, black or both into one of the hues on the basic color wheel, you get variations. Those are what we call tints, tones, and shades. To illustrate this, see the Tint, Tone and Shade color wheel below. It uses Liquitex Basics acrylic paint for each of the primary and secondary colors.

At the center of the wheel above are the six primary and secondary hues. Paints straight out of the tube vary by manufacturer and can skew cool (which means they share qualities with the blue side of the color spectrum) or warm (having qualities of the red and yellow sides of the spectrum). Compare the hues below to the color wheel. The Liquitex Basics “Primary Red” hue seems to skew cool, as you’ll see.

The Other Rings of the Color Wheel

Tints

You get tints when you add white to any hue on the color wheel. This lightens and desaturates the hue, making it less intense. Tints are often called pastels, and they strike many people as calmer, quieter colors. To make the tints below, use the hue straight from the bottle along with an equal amount of white. Again, since paints vary by manufacturer and type, the amounts you'll need will depend on the intensity of the pigment in a certain tube.

Tones

Whenever you add both black and white to a hue, you get tones. Another way of looking at it is that you're adding grey to the hue. Depending on the proportions of black, white and the hue you've chosen, tones can be darker or lighter than the original hue. They can also appear less saturated or intense than the original. Tones can reveal subtle and complex qualities in a hue or a combination of hues, and are more true to the way we see colors in the real world.

Shades

Add only black to a hue and you get a shade which tends to be richer, darker and often more intense than the original color. Because many black pigments can be overpowering, adding black to a hue is tricky and sometimes frustrating. By adding even a small amount of certain black pigments, you can change the character of a hue, so use those sparingly. Instead, you can often make a hue darker by adding another dark hue rather than black.

Now that you've got the basics down, grab your paints and start testing. Playing with different mixtures and figuring out how they look is your ticket to freedom, control and fun — no matter what you decide to paint.

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Hues, Tints, Tones, Shades: All Those Color Terms Are About to Get Way Less Confusing