Shade, Tint, and Tone: What Is the Difference Between These Color Terms?

Red color illustrating the difference between shade, tint, and tone

Color is a general term that describes hues, shades, tints, and tones. Many use these terms interchangeably, even though each of them has a distinct meaning. When you understand the difference between these words, you are better able to put colors together and understand which colors contrast each other. If you are an artist or designer, this can help you mix and combine colors. It is also helpful in everyday life when matching clothes or decorating a room.

Is Hue Important?

Hue is significant when talking about color. A hue is a pure pigment, meaning it is a pure color without added white or black. Hue is the beginning color of all colors. It is the base color of every color you see.

When working with paint, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue (RYB). These are hues. You cannot make primary colors by mixing other colors together (at least not using the same color model), as every color starts from one of these three. They can be considered the parent colors. Secondary colors, orange, green, and purple, are also hues. These are like the children colors. You create tertiary colors when you mix one primary color with a secondary color. The tertiary colors are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green. These are also hues, and they can be considered the grandchildren of primary colors.

Color wheel with 12 basic pure colors or hues and their names

For digital artists, the primary colors are red, green, and blue (RGB). The secondary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. The tertiary colors are azure, violet, rose, orange, chartreuse, and spring green.

As you can see, both color models or color wheels are divided into 12 basic hues: three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.

Black, white, and gray are not only considered neutral colors, but they also are not hues.

How is Color Defined?

There are three qualities that define color. Hue is the first. The other two are saturation and value. Saturation is a description of how intense or vivid a color appears. Other words, such as purity and richness, are used in place of saturation to describe color. You change the saturation of a color when you add black, gray, or white to it. Value represents how light or dark a color appears. When there is a high value in a color, it is light. When there is a low value in a color, it is dark. You can change the value when you tint, shade, or tone a hue.

The three qualities that define color: hue, saturation, and value

What is a Shade?

A shade is when a color remains its original hue but has been darkened. So shading simply darkens the color. Typically, only black is added to the pure color or hue to give it shade. There is no white or gray added. You can also add black to a combination of colors to create a shade. It is not specifically for pure colors. The shade of color has ranges. It can go from a slightly darker version of the color to almost black. This is based on the amount of black that is added. The color tends to look darker, more dramatic, and intense. It is easy to add too much black and get a shade much darker than you intended. You should add black in small amounts to get the shade you want. You can also consider adding a darker hue of the same color to shade your existing color. This can help you get the desired color without accidentally adding too much black and getting a shade you did not want.

Color shades with black added to hue

What is a Tint?

Where shade is the darkness of a color; tint is the lightness. You may hear a tint referred to as a pastel color. However, this is not always accurate. For something to be a tint, you must mix the pure color with white to lighten it. When creating a tint, the color becomes lighter. It does not become brighter. It may appear brighter to your eye, but that is not really the case. The color often looks softer after the white is added, which is why it is sometimes called a pastel. Adding white to the color is actually desaturating the hue. The smallest amount of white is able to create a tint from a hue. As a result, you can create a color that is just a little lighter than the original or one that is almost white. Tints contain absolutely no gray. A great way to get the tint you want is to start with white and add your pure color to the white. You can then add a little at a time, and you can work to get the tint just right.

Color tints with white added to hue

What is a Tone?

Tone is when you add gray to any hue. You can also add gray to a mixture of hues. In this case, gray is considered a neutral color. When you use gray to create a tone, it is simply white with black added. You can add gray to light or dark colors. Either way, it tones down the intensity of it, hence the name. You want to add gray cautiously to a hue. Once you have dulled a hue with gray, you can not get back the brightness. Colors that are toned are subtle and more pleasing to look at. Most often, the colors you see every day have some tone to them. The more white you add to a hue means you will have a lighter tone. The more black you add to a hue gives you a darker tone.

Color tones with gray added to hue

What Makes These Color Terms Different?

While they all relate to color, they are incredibly distinct in the color they present. Here is an overview of the differences:


  • Hues are pure, bright, and fully saturated colors.
  • There are 12 basic hues on the color wheel.
  • Black, white, and gray are not hues.


  • You create a shade by adding black to a hue.
  • Shades make colors darker, but the hues remain the same.
  • There is no white or gray in a shade.


  • A tint is a hue with white added to it.
  • Tints make a color lighter, but the hue is the same.
  • There is no black or gray in a tint.


  • You create a tone by adding gray to a hue.
  • Tones make colors look less vibrant, but the hue remains the same.
  • Gray is a neutral color created with black and white.

Why are Shade, Tint, and Tone Important?

There are many ways that shade, tint, and tone can impact your art and other ways you use color. These techniques help to create an illusion. When you use tints, shading, and tone together, you can create an illusion of how the light hits an object. You can create highlights and shadows to give an object a two-dimensional look.

When you lighten or darken colors, you can create a specific atmosphere. For example, you can give art, an outfit, or a room a soft feeling when using just tints by themselves. You can also create the sense that there is a large amount of sunlight.

When you use shades and tints next to one another, you can create contrast. Even with the slightest difference between a dark tone and a light tint, you can create contrast. The more significant the difference between the two, the larger the contrast between colors. These techniques help to give distance and depth. As you change the saturation and value of a hue, it adds illusion, such as shining light on an object. It can make the object seem further away. When you create a light area and surround it with a darker area, it draws attention to the lighter area.

How to Use Shades, Tints, and Tones in Your Designs

Abstract geometric patterns with gradients and contrasting colors

There are many ways you can use shades, tints, and tones in your designs, depending on what you are trying to create.

Illusions and Shapes

You can use contrast to create geometric shapes and illusions. When you start with a hue as your base, you can add contrast to create a variation of the hue. A popular way to use contrast is by creating geometric designs. You can do this with a feature wall decorating a house, sidebars in graphic design, or clothes. To create a two-dimensional effect, you can experiment with various tints, tones, and shades of the same color. You can produce this effect using different colors. When you use some variation of your base color, it helps to create a unique look that is easy on your eyes. Make sure you use two variations that you can easily distinguish between.

Capture Attention

You can use shade and tint to bring attention to whatever color you use. When you put a tint and a shade next to each other, it captures the eye and attention of whoever is looking at it. Likewise, when you contrast dark and light areas, it brings the attention of the viewer to the contrasted area. For example, when you create a small light area within an entirely dark space, the lighter area is what captures attention. The same is true when you reverse the areas and place a dark object within a light space.

Mixing Colors

While you can create wonderful color palettes by using different base colors, you can get more pop by using tones, shades, and tints in the same palette of base colors. Doing so can help balance the design while not being too overwhelming. You can consider using muted colors over large areas and using dramatic or vibrant colors as a highlight.

What are Color Schemes?

Hands holding color scheme tool used to find compatible and harmonious colors

When using shades, tints, and tones in designs, these seven major color schemes can help put harmonious colors together:

Monochromatic is the use of one color or hue in various tints and shades to help produce a consistent look and feel. Monochromatic schemes can be used to create high or low contrast designs that look polished and clean. In addition, you can easily move between dark and light versions of the same color without worrying about clashing colors.

Analogous uses one main color and two other colors next to it on the color wheel. It is a three-color scheme, but you can expand it to a five-color scheme by adding two more colors close to the second and third on the color wheel. Analogous schemes tend to look softer since there are not as many contrasting colors.

Complementary is when you use two colors that are across each other on the color wheel. This adds contrast to your colors. It works best when using primarily one color in the design and then applying the second color as an accent color.

Split-Complementary is when you select one primary color and two secondary colors adjacent to its complement on the color wheel. This color scheme is more nuanced and can provide a lot of contrast to your design, but it can be difficult to balance.

Triadic is when three colors that are equally spaced from each other are selected from the color wheel. This concept helps you create a large amount of contrast. Use this scheme carefully and avoid overwhelming the eyes. You can tone down the effect by using one color as the dominant one and the other two as secondary colors.

Square color schemes use four colors that are the same distance away from each other, and these colors create a square shape on the color wheel. The concept ensures that you will always end up with as many warm as cool colors.

Rectangular is also referred to as a tetradic scheme. The rectangular color scheme is a variant of the complementary concept, which is why it is also called a double complementary color scheme. It gives you the ability to create designs that are very rich in color.