What Does Hue, Value and Chroma Mean in Color Theory?

Man and woman choosing colors for graphic design project

If you’re wondering what hue, value and chroma means and how you work with these three aspects of color, this post will answer all your questions. But first, we need to take a look at why color is so important to us.

Color can make all the difference in the world when it comes to having the right atmosphere, sending the right message or making someone want to come back to a particular location. Aesthetics are about more than what can be seen with the naked eye. In reality, the way something looks can change a person’s emotions, making them feel more or less comfortable based on the environment that they are in at any given time. Color plays a huge role in creating the right aesthetic. In fact, color is so important that it can even make a person feel more or less guarded. It’s all based on what that individual sees when they walk into a room.

Color Theory Defined

Color theory concept with professional graphic and interior designer characters choosing colors from palette wheel for design project

Since color is so important, a lot of work has gone into studying it in everything from clothing to the paint that goes on your walls. As such, it may not be surprising that subjects like color theory exist. However, the very idea of color theory can be confusing at times. This is largely because the definition of it seems to change from time to time. It largely depends on who you ask and what particular niche you’re talking about. For example, it means something entirely different in the visual arts community as compared to the world of interior designers. Marketers are likely to give you an entirely different definition.

Think about it this way. A marketer might look at color theory in order to alter how a person feels about a product to increase the chances of a sale. On the other hand, an interior designer sees color theory from an entirely different perspective. For them, it’s all about creating a particular look. They have certain boundaries that they work within which allow them to create an aesthetic that their clients want. In much the same way that musicians work with music theory in order to create unique sounds, interior designers work with color theory to create the right look.

Man holding color wheel in one hand while using computer with the other

What about the visual artist? This is where you really get into the nuts and bolts of color theory. It centers around the color wheel and how certain colors can be combined in order to create something new. In addition, visual artists use it to influence how bright, deep, light or dark a particular color is. This in turn gives them the opportunity to create an almost endless combination of colors based off the same original color. Last but certainly not least, it provides them with three tiers of choices when choosing colors that compliment each other. They often refer to these colors as primary, secondary and tertiary colors. It’s all about finding creativity through a very specific method.

In color theory, there are certain aspects of a color that can be defined. Three of them are hue, value and chroma. The question is, what do these terms really mean? More will be discussed about each one in greater detail below, so if you want to learn more about color theory and how it affects virtually everything you see, all you have to do is keep reading.


Color wheel with twelve hues on a gray background

The definition of hue can be a bit confusing, even for people who work with color. But think of it as a way to identify pure colors. Hue is used to distinguish one color from another. Technically, it involves primary colors (red, yellow, blue). However, secondary colors (green, orange, purple) are also considered hues. If that’s not confusing enough, tertiary colors (yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, yellow-green) are considered hues as well.

If you’re scratching your head right now, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Think of it in terms of something you can visualize. When you look at a rainbow, you see all kinds of different colors. Each and every one of those colors are hues. When you’re looking at virtually any other object, the hue is the main color that creates the base for whatever you’re seeing. In other words, a desk that is entirely blue would have a blue hue. By the same token, a desk that is teal in color would also have a blue hue, along with the green one. This is because teal is a mixture of blue and green.


Illustration of the value of the color blue

Fortunately, value is a little bit easier to understand. It refers to the particular shade of a color and how dark or how light that particular color is. In color theory, the lightest colors are considered to have the highest value. As such, something that is blue in color can have a very high or low value, depending on how light or dark the end result is. This provides a benchmark for people who work with colors so they can refer back to a particular choice for any given base color.

Typically, there are additional definitions involved in value that are also grouped together. For instance, tone, shade and tint usually go hand-in-hand with value. Tone simply refers to whether or not a particular color is duller than the base color one started with. It is accomplished by adding gray to virtually any base color. By the same token, shade refers to adding black to any base color. The express purpose here is to make that color darker. Finally, tint refers to making a color lighter. This is done by adding white to the base color.


Illustration of the chroma of the color blue

Perhaps you have heard this term before when working with colors, speaking to an interior designer or working with someone in photography. You might have even seen such a setting when playing around with some editing features for digital photography. Chroma simply refers to the purity of the color in question. If a color has a high chroma, it’s because it has virtually no hint of black, white or gray to alter its shade, tint or tone. On the other hand, a base color with a low chroma has a great deal of either black, white or gray. Of course, there are an almost infinite number of possibilities that exist between the highest and lowest chroma possible. This allows individuals to alter the original color of virtually anything by adding or taking away black, white or gray. It effectively alters either the shade, tint or tone to create what some may consider an entirely new color. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about changing the color of the paint on your walls by mixing black, white or gray with a base color or if you’re looking at something like a digital photograph which can be altered in order to create a different atmosphere within the photo itself.

Even if you haven’t been familiar with the term in the past, there is little doubt that you have played around with chroma yourself. Perhaps you didn’t realize what you were doing at the time, but almost everyone has added black to another color in order to make it darker. You probably also noticed that it is possible to create an entirely different mood with that color. On the flip side, adding white to a color can brighten the mood and make the entire project both look and feel completely different.

The same is true when you play with the saturation setting on a digital camera or even when you’re doing some photo editing on your computer. You can take a color photograph and then create a black and white image from the exact same photo that has an entirely different feel. As previously mentioned, there are almost endless possibilities in between the extremes of color and black and white. You can adjust the amount of grayscale that you see in the photo in order to create an entirely different atmosphere. When it’s all said and done, you can take one photograph and create numerous photos that all hit differently without ever changing anything but the color.

Why Does Color Matter So Much?

Smiling woman holding painting tools looking directly at camera posing against designer house sketch

There are a lot of reasons why color is important, not the least of which is the ability to enhance or decrease certain emotions. It’s interesting to note that a person who walks into a room painted with warm colors often feels more welcome in that room. As such, they are more likely to stay for a longer period of time. They’re also more likely to return again and again. You can take the same person and put them in a room that is full of stark white and they might feel very uncomfortable. Their lack of comfort might even get to the level where they simply want to get out of the room as fast as they can. That person may be reluctant to return back to the room for any length of time whatsoever. This is one reason why many hospitals eventually turned away from the stark, clinical white that used to be found virtually everywhere. These days, many of them try to use different colors to help a person feel more comfortable. You’re also likely to see this in offices or even in certain boutiques. The idea is to create an ambience that people want to be a part of.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about shopping, eating in a restaurant or visiting a doctor’s office. The idea is to make people more comfortable so that they want to be in that environment. It might seem odd to group a doctor’s office in with shopping and eating, but it’s all about creating that space that people are comfortable existing in. Shop owners and restaurant managers do it because it makes people more likely to come in, spend time and spend money in that location. Doctors and hospitals do it in part because they understand the science behind making people feel more comfortable by creating the right atmosphere. In addition, they know that people are likely to come back to the places that make them feel like they can let their guard down a little bit. If a simple coat paint and a few well-placed decorations can bring more patients into a doctor’s office, it only makes sense for them to create that atmosphere. They are running a business just like the restaurant manager and the shopkeeper.

Working With Hue, Value and Chroma

Casual group of designer people sitting around table looking at colors

You might think that the only people that really need to work with these three aspects of color are people who routinely use color in their professional lives. That assumption is simply not correct. People from all walks of life work with these aspects on a daily basis. The only difference is that the professional realizes exactly what they are doing. Someone who doesn’t know about hue, value and chroma may not realize what they are working with, at least not entirely. However, they very much understand that they are creating something based on mixing different colors together in order to arrive at a desired conclusion. The professional may look at it from a more scientific standpoint, but everyone works with these aspects of color in a practical sense at one time or another.

A person who doesn’t have any scientific understanding of these aspects of color can still create different things based on changing these qualities. Gaining a better understanding of them allows each individual to make those changes in a more determined and efficient manner. Whether you’re painting something on a canvas or choosing a new color for your walls, this can help you look at things a bit differently. In short, it gives you an opportunity to create the aesthetic that you want without as much trial-and-error to get there.

The next time you’re editing a photograph or looking at paint colors for your next project, you might try thinking about hue, value and chroma. See where those qualities take you when you are making minor changes to a base color. You might be surprised at the end result. In fact, gaining a better understanding of these qualities may allow you to do things that you never even considered before.