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From Karen Saunders

Your Branding, Marketing & Self-Publishing Coach

Color Theory: 6 Common But Often Misunderstood Color Terms

When discussing color with clients I’ve discovered some common color terms are misunderstood or confused with other definitions of a general or broader use of the terms. Some of these terms are very specific when used in the context of color theory and design, but may have quite different meanings in the minds of the general public.


In color theory a tint is a color with white added to it; a lighter version of the specific color. When white is added to red it will results in pink, which is a tint of red. In general use, a tint may be any color that has a different color added to it. For example, a woman may have blond hair tinted with red highlights. Pastels are tints.


In color theory a shade is color with black added to it; a darker version of the specific color. When black is added to blue it will result in navy. In general use people may use the word shade for any variation of a particular color: lighter, darker or tinted.


In color theory a tone is color with gray added to it; a more muted version of the specific color. When gray is added to blue it will result in a slate blue. In general use people may use the words “shade” and “tint” in place of the word “tone.” Typically only artists and designers understand and use the word “tone.”


In color theory value refers to where a particular color is on a scale of from very light (bright) to very dark. Higher value colors reflect more light. Tints will have a higher value and shades would have darker values. For example a bright yellow would have a higher value than navy blue.


In color theory saturation refers to the purity or intensity of a color. Highly saturated colors are intense and vivid and less-saturated colors are muted or washed out. Colors appear more saturated when viewed in bright light. When white, gray or black is added to a color it becomes less saturated. Surrounding elements, the type of lighting and the time of day will affect the appearance of color saturation.


In color theory hue has the same meaning as “color.” It refers to the pure spectrum of saturated colors: red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow. Typically only artists and designers use the word “hue.”

Understanding Color Theory

The illustration shown below shows the distinctions between the color terms. If you are interested in learning more about color theory, I recommend these books: Color Bytes by Jean Bourges, Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition by Josef Albers, and Color Theory: An essential guide to color from basic principles to practical applications by Patti Mollica.

Color Theory