Hues, Tints, Tones and Shades: What’s the Difference?

A lot of us use the terms hue, tint, tone and shade when referring to color in art, but did you know each of these terms has a very specific meaning?

For a painter, knowing the difference between them all is important when communicating concepts in your painting. More importantly, you can use this knowledge for color mixing, helping you figure out how to mix just the right colors from your paints.

color wheel - primary and secondary colors

If you would enjoy getting a more in-depth knowledge of color mixing, have a look at Master Palettes: Exploring Color Mixing, which walks through the characteristics of value, hue and chroma that define various palettes in painting.

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Hue is a term that seems more complicated than it is. A hue is just a color. More specifically, a hue is any color on the color wheel. Hopefully you’re familiar with the color wheel, but let’s go over it quickly if you need a refresher.

There are three primary colors, red, blue and yellow. Most of us also know that combining any two of those primary colors will give you one of the secondary colors: red and blue make violet, yellow and blue make green, and red and yellow make orange. A third set of colors, the tertiary colors, fill in the six gaps between the primary and secondary colors– red-orange, blue-green, red-violet and so on. Tertiary colors are pretty simple to figure out based on their names, so we won’t cover them here.

Colors on exact opposites of the color wheel are known as complementary colors. Mixing a color with its complement will give you a muddy brown.

You might have noticed that black and white are not colors on the color wheel, and thus are not hues. So where do they fit in when it comes to mixing colors?

Tints, tones, and shades are variations of the hues found on the basic color wheel when white, black or both are mixed in. To illustrate this, I painted a Tint, Tone and Shade color wheel using Liquitex Basics acrylic paint for each of the 6 primary and secondary colors.

color wheel - tints, tones, shades, hues

At the center of the wheel I have painted the six primary and secondary hues, just as in the color wheel shown above. Paints straight out of the tube vary by manufacturer and can skew towards cool (having qualities of the blue side of the color spectrum) or warm (having qualities of the red and yellow sides of the spectrum). Compare the hues below to the color wheel I noticed here that the Liquitex Basics “Primary Red” hue skews cool, as you’ll see.

hues color wheel - on Craftsy

Let’s break down the other rings of the wheel:

Tints are created when you add white to any hue on the color wheel. This will lighten and desaturate the hue, making it less intense. Tints are often referred to as pastel colors, and many feel they are calmer, quieter colors. To make the tints below, I used equal parts white and the hue straight from the bottle. Again, the amounts needed will vary by manufacturer and paint variety, depending on the intensity of the pigment in a given paint.

tints color wheel
Tones are created when you add both black and white to a hue. You could also say grey has been added. Depending on the proportions of black, white and the original hue used, tones can be darker or lighter than the original hue, and will also appear less saturated or intense than the original hue. Tones can reveal subtle and complex qualities in a hue or combination of hues, and are more true to the way we see colors in the real world.

tones color wheel
Shades are created when only black is added to a hue. This results in a rich, often more intense and darker color. Because of the overpowering nature of many black pigments, adding black to a hue is a tricky and sometimes frustrating exercise when mixing paint. Many blacks will change the character of a hue even in small amounts, so they should be used sparingly. Alternatively, a hue can often be made darker by adding another dark hue rather than black. Testing different mixtures is the best approach.

shades color wheel - on Craftsy

Look around you. Where do you see colors that might be tints, tones or shades?

35 Comments

Jill

Thanks for sharing! This comes in handy to have when creating some art, especially the mixed media pieces that I work on. Makes it less of a challenge to find colors that work together and make project more cohesive! Color wheels are my lifesaver!

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Billie

I live with a painter and I am frequently reminded to use the correct color language when describing color. I say something like a blue that is sort of greyed which really should be described as a tone of blue. It really is more precise to learn and describe colors in terms of shades, tones, tints, hues. It’s sort of like saying you are having pasta, meat, vegetables rather than lasagna, roast beef or broccoli. It’s just a more precise way of understanding and communicating color.

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ellen barker

So where does this word”saturation” come in ? I have heard it lately all the time. Could it be compared to “depth” when referring to color? Sorry just an English major trying to get it. lol

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Paul Heaston

Hi Ellen,
Good question! When I say saturation I’m referring to a pure hue. You could also say rich or deep, and I’d know what you’re talking about.

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Albert

Saturation means purity of a color — how much pure and bright the color appears. Least saturated would be a gray of the same intensity. When a paint is mixed with any other color, its saturation decreases. So, it’s better to mix colors that are nearer (less angular distance) on the color wheel so that saturation won’t decrease significantly. For example, mixing yellow and green gives more saturated yellowish green rather than mixing yellow and blue which are farther apart. In case of light, saturated means containing one wavelength (or just a few closely spaced) while an unsaturated light’s spectrum spans a lot of wavelengths far apart.

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Virgil Carter

This article is obviously well intended but in serious error, beginning with the use of the now discredited Newtonian color wheel and it primary colors–yellow, red and blue. Modern science has conclusively demonstrated that the modern primary colors are light yellow, magenta and cyan.

The positioning of the tints, saturated colors, tones, shades and gray are also incorrect. The geometry of color space is three dimensional: the vertical axis represents the lightness or value of a color; the horizontal dimension is a color disk, with a series of segments that locate and define each hue. The lateral distance or radius measured from the center outward is the degree of hue purity of a color, usually stated as the hue’s chroma or absolulte colorfulness. The center of the circl represent true gray and the outter perimeter represents masimum chroma or saturation for each color on the hue circle.

I hope this is helpful.

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Paul Heaston

Hi Virgil,
Great comment! My intention with the color wheel was a simple demonstration of the concept of hues, tints, tones and shades, and not to illustrate the mechanics of color theory or the properties of the visible spectrum–at least not yet ;). I debated whether or not to show this on a wheel instead of a grid, as I am basically demonstrating the mixing properties of different Liquitex paints when white, gray, and black are added, as well as defining some basic terms and concepts. Having taught color theory, I am aware of alternative color wheel models to Newton’s, such as the Munsell wheel and the wheel James Gurney affectionately refers to as the “Yurmby wheel,” which is probably the best model to date. Of course, these are all mathematical constructs, and finding pigments that match them in the real world is much tougher.

As far as color being three dimensional as you stated, with value being on a different axis than chroma, absolutely! I just included shades in my wheel because this was more of a swatch to show mixing qualities of pigments instead of an a illustration of the visible spectrum.

Thanks for the great comment.

Cheers, Paul

Reply
Paul Heaston

Addendum: For those interested, the James Gurney book “Color and Light” provides one of the clearest explanations of contemporary color theory around. And he’s a terrific painter. I highly recommend it!

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Virgil Carter

Thanks, Paul, for the clarification about the information being applicable to acrylics. For watercolor, tints may be made by diluting the paint with water or white. Wouldn’t this also apply to acrylics, since many painters use acrylics as watercolor, especially the liquid acrylics.

James Gurney’s site is a great resource. Thanks for posting.

Reply
Paul Heaston

Absolutely, for any transparent or translucent medium, the white of the paper/substrate can serve to “tint” the color, especially watercolors and liquid acrylics, as well as glazed oils.

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Darlene Krystal

Great color wheel info…thank you…..been quilting a long time but everyonce in a while its good to have a refresher….Have a great day.

Reply
Rick Crippen

So what do you call the results when you mix complementary colors?

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Paul Heaston

Good question Rick.
Most of the time, at least in theory, mixing perfect complements should give you a neutral grey. I’ve found that, depending on the warmth or coolness of a color, a very muddy brown can also result. I don’t think there’s a specific term, other than “mixed complements.”
-Paul

Reply
Sharon

Great info. Would like to post on my blog with your attribution of course.

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julie groenewald

Thank you for colour, tint etc info. Just started with acrylic painting. Luv it!!!!!

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vinod

is there any tone called Greenish ? how it formed.
if my basic color is ivory or beige what are potential tones can be found

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Jack Still

Oh my god thanks you, my art teacher makes this stuff way more complicated.

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A.j. Nivens

Great bit of knowledge here and quite easy to understand. I consider myself a Colorist. I like to work with bright and vibrant colors. But sometimes it is necessary to tone down a color or make colors deeper and darker (Shades.) I prefer to tone down my colors with complementary colors and some browns depending on the Hue I am using. Also to deepen my colors I like to use other dark colors or dark complementary colors. Though sometimes I do use Paynes Grey to deepen some colors depending on the Hue I am after. I am not too keen on a grayed down painting. I find that using other colors to tone down or deepen a color helps to keep the vibrancy in the painting with out it looking too greyish. I do however like to use greys in my paintings, but they are colorful and vibrant greys. Often created from purple mixes. A vibrant cool grey is a mix of Dioxazine Purple, Phthalo Green, and White. A good warm grey is a mix of Phthalo Blue, Cad Red, Alizarin Crimson and White. Though I never use these greys to tone down a color.

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bharti

Thank you very much for sharing such useful post in an easy to learn illustrative and simple way for this complicated but colorful world of colors.Anything you can describe or add about dark,deep,bright,dull,pale etc adjectives used for colors?

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bharti

I keep reading blogs about cosmetics’ reviews.Their writers use such complicated descriptions for colors,i got immensely confused and tired reading them.I want to write too but i wanted a more simple and easy to understand basic explanation about cosmetics’ shades.Thanks.

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Randy L Jones

This information about mixing the primary secondary colors will be helpful in me applying activities in our room activities. I now have a better concept of how to mix black and white to create tints and tone thank you for this vital information.

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williams

I actually came here bcos i use photoshop nd I see the result of toning levels n curves I was trying to understand toning theoretically

n tnx I now have it actually in accordance with what I just read in previous sites

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Mary B

I had asked my middle school art teacher this question, but he refused to answer because he claimed it was “a ###### question”. Thank you for answering this so even someone like me could understand. I can’t help but think maybe he didn’t know the answer, so used that as an excuse to not answer.

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unfortunately, you are incorrect in many aspects from a physics point of view. the very first one that stood out was that red and blue do not make violet. They combine to make purple. Violet is a specific wavelength of its own within the blue spectrum. I will let you figure out the other mistakes.

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