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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Hue, Tint, Tone and Shade

Bundles of yarn in various Hues of Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue and Green

We often hear people say things like, 'What a beautiful blue hue.'  or 'What shade of green do you like?'  or 'Which tone do you prefer?' or 'That tint is too light.'

Have you ever wondered what exactly they mean by these color terms? Let me clarify the difference between them. Once you understand the difference, you'll never be unsure again. You'll also be able to describe or mix a color much more easily.

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Hue vs Color

To begin, most people use the terms  Hue and Color interchangeably. It's very common, even with artists and designers to assume the two mean the same thing.

Generally speaking they sort of do, but technically they don't.

A Hue is always a Color.

But a Color is not always a Hue.

The comment above sounds like one of those mind-bending riddles. In fact, the difference between them is actually very simple.

When you use color in any project, it's super helpful to talk or think about each one clearly. So let me explain the difference between Hue and Color in the easiest way possible.

  • COLOR is the general term we use to describe every hue, tint, tone or shade we see. White, Black and Gray are often referred to as a color. 
  • A HUE refers to the dominant Color Family of the specific color we're looking at. White, Black and Grey are never referred to as a Hue.
A Hue Color Wheel showing the twelve different categories

Hue refers to the origin of the color we see. Think of the Hue as one of the six Primary and Secondary colors. In other words, the underlying base color of the mixture you're looking at is either Yellow, Orange, Red, Violet, Blue or Green.

In the photo at the top of the page, you obviously know the Hues right away. But what about more complex colors we want to duplicate in our artwork or projects?

How to Talk Like a Color Pro​

What if a color is truly an in-between Tertiary  such as a Yellow/Green where neither Yellow nor Green dominate? Obviously you could describe it as a Yellow/Green Hue and you wouldn't be wrong.

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Before long you'll find it easy to identify the Hue more specifically. You'll begin to drill down and impress yourself, by describing the color something like this: 
'The color has a Yellow Hue, leaning strongly toward Green.'  
Indeed this clarifies that the mixture began with the Primary Yellow, and gradually added the Secondary color Green.

Neutrals also contain a Hue depending on their originating color. On the other hand, pure Black, pure White and Pure Grey do not contain a Hue.

Here are a few examples of how you can look at a color closely to decide which is the Dominant Hue. One you've established this in your mind, it becomes much easier to recreate the color or mix it further.

  • Burgundy   =   RED
  • Pink   =   RED
  • Navy   =   BLUE
  • Rust   =   ORANGE
  • Cool Gray   =   It might be BLUE or even PURPLE or GREEN - Really look at it.
  • Warm Brown   =   It might be ORANGE but it might be RED or YELLOW - Really look at it.

Painting Tips for HUES

*  When you want to mix a specific color, begin by observing it really closely. Try to see the Hue Family it originates from. To this end, you will have a clear beginning point to start mixing.

*  When you buy paint in an art store, some of the colors will be labeled with the word HUE. Don't be fooled into thinking these are pure Primary or pure Secondary colors. It's a manufacturer misnomer. The 'HUE Colors' are mixed colors that imitate a pure Hue, but never mix well.

Defining and Describing a TINT

A Tint is sometimes also called a Pastel. But to be  precise, Color Theory defines a True Tint as any Hue or mixture of pure colors with only White added.

A Color Wheel with twelve tints

A Tint lightens the color, but it doesn't make it brighter. Even though the color may appear brighter, in actual fact it  is not. In other words, it remains exactly the same color, only a paler version. Furthermore, even a small amount of White added to a color, transforms it into a Tint.

Therefore a Tint can range from slightly lighter than your original color, all the way to White with barely any of the color mixed in.

A ball of yarn in pastel tinted colors.

In addition, a true Tint contains no Gray. 

To create a true Tint, simply add White to any individual color on the Color Wheel or any of those pure colors mixed together.

Regardless of this Color Theory definition, artists often bend the rules somewhat. Instead of White to mix a Tint, they use  other pale neutral pigments such as Titanium or Titan Buff. These pigment 'Whites' can produce beautiful complex Tints.

Painting Tips for TINTS

*  To mix pale Tints, always begin with your White paint. From there, very gradually mix in the tiniest specks of your color until you achieve the Tint you want.

*  Artists often add a tiny touch of White to a pure pigment. This help to accentuate the mass tone of the color making it appear brighter.

*  When you mix White with any color, be careful and mix extremely gradually. For example, Bright Red can very quickly turn into an ugly Pink you don't like.

What Exactly is a TONE?

Color Theory defines a True Tone as any Hue or mixture of pure colors with only Gray added. To be precise, this definition considers Gray as truly neutral. In other words, there are no additional pigments in the Gray other than White plus Black.

A Color Wheel showing twelve tones of colors

A neutral mixture of Gray,  no matter how light or dark, will tone down the intensity of any color. As a general warning, be careful with how much Gray you mix in. Too much Gray dulls the color so much, it becomes impossible to get the brilliance back.

Toned colors are generally considered more pleasing to the eye. They are complex, subtle and sophisticated. That's because bright pure colors are most often associated with children.

Generally speaking, almost every color we see in our day-to-day world has been toned to some degree. In the photo below, look at the colors themselves without thinking of them as wool. Almost every bundle is a slightly Toned version of the original pure colors. Notice how nearly every variation appears to contain a little Gray, that is either a light or dark Value.

Bundles of dyed wool drying like yarn in multiple colors

Painting Tips for TONES

*  There's an easy way to mix both light and dark Tones quickly while painting. Specifically, pre-mix Light, Medium and Dark Neutral Grays from White plus Black. Store them in small food containers to have them on hand all the time. 

*  Artist always love to bend the rules. An experienced painter might make a Gray using Paynes Gray plus Titan Buff. It's true this will produce a gorgeous Gray. But be extremely careful.  Mixtures like this contain Neutral Base Hues such as Blue or Orange. Therefore, when mixed with other paints, colors can get muddy very quickly. 

*  It's always a great idea to experiment with the color mixtures before you paint. This helps you understand the potential of each color while avoiding unintended muddy colors in your artwork.

What is the definition of a SHADE?

Color Theory defines a True Shade​ as any pure Hue or mixture of pure colors with only Black added. In other words, it contains absolutely no White or Gray.

A color wheel showing the twelve hues as shades

A Shade darkens the color. It remains the same Hue only a darker version. As has been noted above, even a small amount of White or Gray added to a color, transforms it into a Tone.

Therefore a Shade can range from slightly darker than your original color, all the way to nearly Black with barely any of the color mixed in.

As you can see below, the colors in the umbrella have been shaded by the lack of sunlight. However, if you wanted to paint this, you would add a tiny touch of black to each color.

The shaded colors of the underside of a multi-color umbrella

Painting Tips for SHADES

*  When you mix a Shade, begin with the color itself. Then add your Black a tiny speck at a time. A little goes a long way!

*  Again, many artist like to bend the rules. Many experienced painters do not use Black at all. Instead they create Shade mixtures with Neutral Dark pigments such as Paynes Gray or even Burnt Sienna. These mixtures are gorgeous and complex. However, unless you've pre-tested your paint mixtures, colors can get muddy very quickly.

Let's Review What You Learned

  • In painting, the word COLOR is the general term for everything we see. However, the word HUE refers to the brightest 6 - 12 pure, unmixed pigment families on the Color Wheel.
  • In Color Theory a TINT any Hue with White added. The color remains the same only lighter. 
  • In Color Theory, a TONE is any pure Hue with Neutral Gray added.  The color remains the same only less vibrant.The Values can range from very light to very dark.
  • In Color Theory, a SHADE is any pure Hue with Black added. The color remains the same only darker.

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