What We Talk About When We Talk About Color

What We Talk About When We Talk About Color

Nancy Mitchell
Jan 6, 2016
A color wheel dating from 1908, via Wikimedia Commons
(Image credit: Source)

We talk about color a lot here on Apartment Therapy, sometimes in great detail. After all, not all blues are created equal, or all pinks, or even all whites. Every color has three important characteristics that definite it and set it apart from other colors: hue, value, and saturation. In this post, we'll take a look at these three dimensions and attempt to demystify some of the words we sometimes use to describe colors.

Hue is probably the most familiar attribute of color. When you look at a color wheel, or when you see something and identify it as blue, or green, or red, you're describing hue. There can be different hues within what we think of as a single color, too. For example, if asked about the color of the two hallways above, you'd probably say they're both green. But the second hallway is clearly a different color — the second green is more bluish, almost teal.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. (This is sometimes referred to as 'lightness' or 'tone'.) All the bedrooms pictured above are the same hue, but thanks to a huge variation in the value of the colors they appear quite different.

Saturation is where it gets a little tricky. When we talk about saturation we're referring to the intensity of a particular color. For example: the two pinks pictured above are both about the same hue of pink. And they are both quite light. (After all, if you want to get all technical, pink is really just a light red.) But the color in the second photo is a little more washed out, almost bandaid-y — because it's less saturated. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing — unsaturated colors can be quite desirable, because they often read as more subtle and sophisticated. You can read more about color and saturation here.

(Image credit: Sage Atelier)

So this leads to a whole system for describing colors. For example: here's a bluish green (hue) that's also fairly dark (value) and unsaturated (saturation) paired with a red (hue) of medium value and very high saturation. Hopefully thinking about these dimensions of color will give you the tools to identify, and describe, the huge and fascinating array of colors that surround us every day.

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