Color Terminology Glossary: Basic Color Theory Terms

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Additive colors

In color theory we have different ways to mix colors called additive and subtractive color mixing. Additive colors are created with light and are called such because the more color you add, the lighter the appearance. When the three primary additive colors are combined in full saturation, white is created. Typically, additive colors (primaries red, green and blue) are used when working on a computer screen, whereas subtractive colors (primaries cyan, magenta and yellow) are used in print media.


Achromatic colors, or neutral colors, refer to those which are considered to be colorless. For instance, black, white and most grays are considered achromatic. Some shades of brown are also occasionally classified as achromatic.


An afterimage is what appears in your line of sight after staring at particular stimuli, such as an object or image, and then looking away. A negative afterimage presents inverted lightness, or colors that are complimentary to those of the original image. A positive afterimage presents the same colors as in the original object or stimuli.


Analogous colors refers to any three colors that appear next to each other on the color wheel. These groups of three, also called tertiaries, are comprised of related colors, such as three types of red, or two reds and one orange.


Color balance refers to color rendering, or the adjustment of intensity of color in an image or photograph. This color correction process generally involves the adjustment of reds, blues and greens.


Black, which is not really a color at all, is the only color that is not a reflection of light. More accurately, black is the complete absence of color.

Blue Wool Scale

The Blue Wool Scale, created by The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists, is a system by which the permanence of a dye is measured and regulated. The system was developed for use in the textile industry, but is now also used to measure lightfastness and ink color in the printing industry.


Brilliance refers to the level of brightness in a color or image. The brilliance of a color is how bright it is in comparison to how much brightness is possible, or the maximum brightness possible to that specific color.

Broken color

Broken color is a term used in painting. It refers to the use of small brushstrokes, or pinpoints, of different colors that are not blended on the canvas, but that optically appear to blend into one color when viewed at a distance.

Color cast

Color cast refers to an overall tint, or discoloration, that affects an image. In photography, it generally refers to an unwanted tint that might be reflected onto the subject from something nearby but not pictured.


Chromaticity, or chroma measurement, is the degree by which a color is considered pure, or how much saturation of color there is in a particular color. For instance, a shade of red that leans towards brown or gray is not considered a pure red, and the chromaticity of the shade, therefore, is compromised.

Color wheel

The color wheel, first developed by Sir Isaac Newton during his research on the light spectrum, is a circular chart used to illustrate the relationship between colors. Colors are arranged around the circle in a graduation of similar colors, all of which then relate to each other in other ways, such as in primary colors, secondary colors and tertiary colors.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are those which provide the strongest contrast to each other. Placed as opposites on a color wheel, two complementary colors will create a grayscale shade, such as black or white, when they are combined.

Cool colors

Cool colors refer to those colors which fall into the blue, green and purple families. This term is used in contrast to the term ‘warm colors,’ which refers to colors that fall into the red, orange and yellow families. We call them cool colors because they make us think of things that are cool or cold in temperature, such as the ocean or the feeling of grass on bare feet.


Double-complementary colors, also known as tetradic colors, are a set of four different colors, which are comprised of two adjacent colors on the color wheel and the two adjacent colors that are opposite to the first pair.


In color theory, gamut refers to the range of colors that can be measured, recorded or rendered by a device, such as a diagram or program. Gamut may also refer to the portion of an image that can be duplicated and the colors included.


Color harmony refers to an aesthetically pleasing grouping of two or more different colors. Colors that are complementary, or that contrast well with each other, are said to create color harmony.


The term ‘hue’ is frequently used interchangeably with the word ‘color.’ However, a hue actually refers to the light property that classifies a specific color into a specific family. For instance, the hue of the color magenta is the specific aspect that will classify it as either a red or a purple.


The intensity, also called chroma or saturation, refers to the purity of a particular color. When two colors are combined, the intensity of each color is lessened, and thus both colors become impure.


The term lightfast refers to how much resistance a dye, or other colorant, has to fading when it is exposed to light. For instance, a clothing manufacturer may wish to test the lightfast quality of a dye that he wants to use on a particular garment.


Metamerism is the optical phenomenon in which two objects appear to be the same color when viewed in one light condition, but which appear as distinctly different under another. This often happens with neutral colors like grays, blacks, and whites, but can, for instance, also occur with various other colors, like different shades of blue.


Monotone, or monochromatic, refers to a palette, or other presentation, in which all the colors are from the same family. For instance, a monotone palette that is comprised of reds might include cherry red, apple red, crimson and burgundy.

Muted colors

Muted colors are those which have an altered purity, or which do not retain their full saturation. For instance, pink is a muted form of red that is created by adding white to the color, diluting the intensity of the red itself.

Neutral colors

In color theory, the real true neutral colors are black and white, or black, white and gray. However, you will also see various shades of brown, such as taupe and beige, added to the neutral color category.


The term opaque refers to a color, or a colored object, that has no transparency when held up to the light. For instance, a fabric that is used as a curtain should be opaque, if you want to completely block sunlight from entering the room.

Opposite colors

Opposite colors, also known as complementary colors, are those which are situated at the extreme opposite to each other on a color wheel. For instance, on a very basic color wheel, purple and yellow are opposite colors.

Partitive colors

Partitive colors, sometimes also called optical mixes, are completely new colors which are created by combining two or more original colors. Partitive colors can be created physically, by mixing colorants or dyes, or they can be created optically, where the colors are not physically mixed, but they appear changed through optical processing.

Primary colors

There are three primary colors. Red, yellow and blue in the RYB model or red, green and blue in the RGB model. Primary colors can be used, in a number of combinations, to create every other color.

Prismatic colors

Prismatic colors are those which are visible to the human eye when white light is separated by the use of a prism. These colors are also referred to as ‘the visible spectrum,’ and include the traditional seven colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Rendering intent

A rendering intent refers to any graph, chart or system by which colors are mapped, or transferred, from one color space to another.

Secondary colors

Secondary colors are derived from primary colors by combining two primary colors and mixing them in equal parts.


Although the word is often used interchangeably with the word ‘color,’ shade actually refers specifically to a pure color that has been altered by a degree of darkening, generally by adding black. In comparison, a ‘tint’ is a color that is altered by lightening or adding white. Therefore, carmine may be referred to as a red shade, but pink should be referred to as a red tint.

Split complementary

Split complementary colors, also known as divided complementary colors, are the combination of three colors made by selecting one color, finding the opposite color on the wheel and then selecting the two adjacent colors to the opposite one. These three colors then make up an aesthetically pleasing palette known as split complementary colors.

Subtractive colors

Colors are classified as either subtractive or additive, depending on how they are created. The three primary subtractive colors are cyan, magenta and yellow. When these colors are used, the more color you add, the darker the results. This is why these colors are typically used in print media, where there is a lot of call for black ink. Another set of subtractive primary colors used for mixing pigments is called RYB (red, yellow, blue).

Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are those colors which are created by mixing one primary color, in full saturation, with another, in half saturation. Or, in other words, a tertiary color is a combination of equal parts of one primary color and one secondary color.


The term tint refers to a pure color that has been altered by lightening, such as when pink is created by combining red and white. In other words, tinted colors are those which are a degree lighter than the original color that was used in the alteration. In comparison, a shade is a color that has been altered by darkening.


Tone, in color theory, refers to the dulling of a pure color by adding gray. This effect is similar to shading, where black is added to a pure color in order to darken its hue.

Visible spectrum

The visible spectrum refers to the electromagnetic spectrum of light that is visible to the naked human eye. The wavelengths of light that make up the visible spectrum are how we perceive color. The average person can detect wavelengths of between 400 and 700 nanometers. In comparison, some animals such as certain species of insects and fish, can detect much shorter wavelengths under 400 nanometers in length. They can see ultraviolet light that is not detectable to the human eye.

Warm colors

Warm colors are generally agreed to be those which fall into the red, orange and yellow families of color. The term is used because warm colors tend to evoke thoughts of warm things, such as fire and sunlight. In comparison, cool colors are those which fall into the blue, green and purple families.


Wavelength refers to the length of a wave of light, or the measure of electromagnetic radiation. Waves of light that are of a length between approximately 400 and 700 nanometers, are included in the visible spectrum, because they are visible to the human eye. These waves of light are how we are able to perceive any given color.


While many people think that neither black nor white are true colors, in color theory, white can actually be classified as a color, since white light is the visible combination of red, green and blue light. In other words, the color white is how the human eye sees all colors combined at one time.