Color is a simple word that describes a stunningly complex concept. Light has its own vocabulary, but when dealing with pigments, color can be broken down into a series of more specific terms: hue, tint, tone, and shade. Once you understand each term, you will be on your way to a deeper understanding of color and how to use it in your paintings.


Hues are the building blocks upon which all colors are formed. They consist of the three primary colors—red, blue, and yellow, the three secondary colors—orange, green, and violet, and the six tertiary colors— blue-green, yellow-green, blue-violet, red-violet, yellow-orange, and red-orange. Together, the twelve hues form the full array of colors around the color wheel.

Hues are pure, bright, and bold. They are visually arresting, and work wonderfully in playrooms and eye-catching graphic designs. A painting made only of hues, though, could be quite jarring.

In painting, hues are modified through tinting, toning, and shading. Hues, tints, tones, and shades can then be blended to create a seemingly endless variation of colors.


Tints are also known as pastels. The basic tints are created by adding white to the twelve hues. However, you can also mix any combination of hues together and then add white to create a tint of that particular color blend. Incidentally, if you have ever noticed just how many variations on “white” wall paint or wedding dresses are available, tinting is the reason. Mixing even a few drops of a hue into pure white creates a slightly off-white tint.

Pastels are associated with youth, softness, and traditional femininity. They work well for paintings meant to evoke serenity, early morning light, or quiet moments. Darker or “hotter” tints, which contain only small amounts of white, can also evoke subtle strength and feminine confidence.


Tones are considered aesthetically pleasing due to their subtle sophistication. They are created by adding grey, or a mixture of black and white, to any hue or combination of hues. The majority of colors in our everyday world are tones. Changing the proportions of black and white within your paint mixture even slightly will create a whole new tone. Many artists dab a bit of grey into every color before adding it to a painting to create subtle changes in intensity.


Shades are hues or hue mixtures that contain added black. The amount of black you add will determine the darkness of the hue. In fact, many artists stay away from using pure black in their paintings due to its ability to quickly muddy all of the surrounding colors. Instead, they mix near-black shades by adding a small amount of a hue to pure black paint.

Shades convey wisdom, power, and traditional masculinity. They are a great choice for paintings meant to evoke feelings of mystery, depth, and complexity. Lighter shades, which contain only a small amount of black, can add a pop of energy to your painting. Shades are often used as accents, unless the artist intends to make a definite statement.