Colour theory can be intimidating, but it is simpler than you might think. This article will teach you everything you need to know in order to master colour theory.
Value, Chroma & Hue
Every colour is made up of three different components: value, chroma, and hue. By discovering how to isolate each of these three variables, you can learn to identify the nuances of colours.
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Colour Theory: Value
Value represents how light or dark a colour is.
A stop sign is red, and poinsettias are also red.
But even though they are both red, the red stop sign is a lighter value of red than the darker red of a poinsettia. The poinsettia is a darker value of red than that of the stop sign.
If you were to take a black-and-white photo of the poinsettia next to the stop sign, the stop sign would appear lighter in the photograph.
Artists often use a value scale to evaluate how light or dark a colour is. There are many different value scales available, but the one I use in my teaching and lessons is a 9 step scale, where 9 is the darkest and 1 is the lightest.
So, on a scale of 1-9 with 9 being the darkest and 1 being the lightest, what number would you give the stop sign? What about the poinsettia?
The poinsettia is darker than the stop sign, so it should have a higher number.
The poinsettia is close to a value 7, and the stop sign is close to a value 6.
Pro tip: colours that have a lot of chroma tend to trick our eyes into feeling like they are brighter. Red is usually darker than we think because it tricks us by being so chromatic.
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Colour Theory: Chroma
Chroma is how intense a colour is.
The Caribbean Ocean is often described as having “azure” water. This water is appealing to us because it is a very intense colour of blue.
New England, on the other hand, boasts water that is much murkier. These greyer New England seas are less chromatic. By comparison, the Caribbean waters the appear to be a more intense colour of blue.
So although New England waves are blue, and Caribbean waves are blue, the Caribbean water is more chromatic – it is a more intense color of blue.
What is the opposite of chroma?
The opposite of chroma is neutral. The New England water is a bluish grey and the blue is not very intense – it’s a neutralized blue colour.
What is a true neutral?
It is possible for a color to be so neutralized that it isn’t any color at all. It simply looks like a grey that is not a green-grey, or a blue-grey, or a red-grey – not even a little bit. This is called a “true neutral”.
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Colour Theory – Hue
Hue is a colour theory word that describes which overall colour – from the choices of red, orange yellow, green, blue or purple – the colour you are looking at belongs to.
Hues are also known by the acronym ROYGBP for short. (Sometimes they are also abbreviated as ROYGBIV, ROYGBV, etc.) ROYGBP stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple.
Hues are basically any color on the outside of the colour wheel. Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and red-blue are also hues.
You can take it one step further and add yellow-yellow-green, yellow-yellow-orange, etc. to the list of hues.
In the picture below, there are three colours that are considered to be the hue “blue”, even though they are all different shades of blue.
Read this article on finding opposites on the color wheel.
The Extra Colour Element: Warm & Cool
Some colour theorists prefer to think of “warm” and “cool” colours as the 4th element of colour.
However, using the terms “warm colours” and “cool colours” is actually just a different way of describing a colour’s hue.
Green, for example, can be considered either a “cold” yellow or a “warm” blue.
The terms “warm” and “cool” describe a colour’s relationship to other colours. In the image above, there are three different kinds of blues. The blue closest to red is warm compared to the blue closest to the yellow.
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Give it a try
Now that you know about the three elements of colour, try evaluating a colour just one element at a time.
For example, on the image above, let’s evaluate together the top right colour.
What is its hue? (Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple?)
The hue is green.
What is its value on a scale of 1-9, with 9 being the darkest and 1 being the lights?
The value is probably a number 6. It is not super light and leans slightly towards darker.
What is its chroma? Is it a very greeny green, the greeniest green you ever did see? Or is it a little muddied, or neutralized?
This green is somewhat neutralized. It is not a super chromatic green, although it still reads clearly as a green.
How did you do? Keep practicing by identifying the value, chroma, and hue of the other colours on this chart I made of colours I observed in Iceland.
Learning colour theory takes practice, and the best way to improve your ability to see colours is to ask yourself these three very important questions:
- What is the value?
- What is the chroma?
- What is the hue?
By consistently practicing your colour observation, you will become a master of colour theory in no time.
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