Color Theory Glossary: How To Talk About Color

updated May 7, 2019
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You may know your color wheel — you may even know your ROY G BIV — but when it comes time to talk about color, do you know your hue from your value? Your shade from your tone? October is all about color at Apartment Therapy and whether you are in the middle of a color crisis or paint chip madness we are here to help!

Let’s establish some basic definitions of words that are commonly used to describe color. For the purpose of not delving deep into the science of color and light (I’m guessing you’re not reading Apartment Therapy for its logarithmic equations or scientific references), I’ll stick to brief definitions as they are commonly learned in painting or interior design. Additionally, there are vast amounts of resources that can further your knowledge of color theory and I’ve listed a few links below. Please note that many of these words are similar in their definition yet different in their scientific explanation (in case you think I’m repeating information). Again, each definition can be further researched by clicking on the links below.

Descriptions of Color:

Hue a true color, without tint or shade. This is generally what we mean when we say “color”.
Chromaticity the “colorfulness” of a hue. Chroma, the Greek word for color, is really a measurement of color purity.
Saturation the intensity of a color. A color with high saturation is devoid of gray. A color low in saturation is closer to gray.
Value the brighter the color the higher the value. A paint chip, showing a color from lighter to darker, is a perfect example of changing value.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Color Mixing & Using The Color Wheel:

Primary Colors red, yellow, blue
Secondary Colors green, orange, violet
Tertiary Colors red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-violet, blue-green
Monochromatic A color scheme using one color or several values (shades or tints) of one color. This color combination can be very soothing and calming.
Analogous Any three colors side-by-side on the color wheel (example: orange, red-orange and red). Analogous colors are often found in nature and can be very pleasing to the eye. Usually, one color is more dominate than the others.
Complementary Two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (example: red and green). Complementary colors, as the name implies, complement each other and tend to enhance each other’s colors. Green next to red makes the red look “redder” and vice versa. Complementary color schemes can be very dynamic and have lots of energy. Complementary colors are often used for sports uniforms for this very reason.
Triadic Three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel (example: red, yellow and blue).
Neutral Colors that are not found on the color wheel such as gray, beige and brown.
Warm Colors do not include any blue
Cool Colors do not include any red
Tints adding white to a pure hue
Shades adding black to a pure hue
Tones adding gray to a pure hue

But I’m still confused — what color I should paint my wall?

Stepping into a paint store and trying to find the perfect green among a hundred “greens” can be overwhelming and frustrating. Knowing how to speak the language of color may help you decipher your color options better. For example, understanding that you prefer tinted greens (white added to them) versus shaded greens (black added to them) or that you prefer warm neutrals over cool neutrals, may help narrow down the color field.

Many of us find ourselves gravitating towards the same colors, or color combinations, over and over again. Knowing that you are a big fan of tertiary colors, for example, may help you focus in on specific color combinations when looking at furniture, textiles, paint or decorative items. Keeping a notebook of tear sheets, fabric swatches or paint chips can also aid in your color pursuit.

Our perception of color (light) is ever-changing: our light changes, our mood changes, our architecture changes. Ultimately what color you choose for your interior space is entirely personal. Most people gravitate towards overall balance and harmony in a room, but this may mean different things to different people. Hopefully, knowing how to talk about color can help you hone in on what it is you are trying to achieve in your space.

Color Cube Color Theory
Tiger Color
Wikipedia Munsell Color System
Color Matters

10 Color Tips for Your Home via Farrow & Ball
• How to Work With Warm & Cool Colors