Color is an essential element of visual design that can dramatically affect the look and feel of an image. But color has several different attributes that are important to understand – hue, value, and chroma. In this article, we’ll break down the differences between these color properties and how they interact to create the colors we see.
What is Hue?
Hue refers to the pure color we see – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. It is what wavelength of light is reflected back to our eyes. On the color wheel, hue represents the location of the color around the wheel. For example:
|is a hue
|is a hue
|is a hue
The hue is basically the color family. There are primary hues (red, blue, yellow) and secondary hues made by mixing the primaries (orange, green, purple). Some people refer to hue as ‘color’ in casual conversation, but technically hue is just one attribute of color.
What is Value?
Value refers to how light or dark a color appears. It represents the amount of black or white mixed with the hue. On the color wheel, value controls how far the color is from the center – the closer to the edge, the higher the value.
|has a high value
|has a low value
A color with high value will be very pale and closer to white. A color with low value will be very dark and closer to black. Value is extremely important for conveying depth, contrast, and dimension in an image.
What is Chroma?
Chroma refers to the saturation or intensity of a color. It represents how pure and vivid the hue is. On the color wheel, chroma controls how far the color is from the center horizontally.
|has high chroma
|has low chroma
A color with high chroma will be very rich and saturated. A color with low chroma will be more muted and greyish. Chroma controls the brilliance and drama of a color.
How do hue, value, and chroma interact?
Now that we understand the three main color attributes, how do they work together to create all the colors we see? Let’s break it down:
- The hue determines the pigment color family.
- The value controls how light or dark the color is.
- The chroma controls how saturated or muted the color is.
By varying hue, value, and chroma, an infinite range of colors can be created. For example:
As you can see, hue determines the starting color, value controls lightness/darkness, and chroma controls saturation. This is the foundation for generating colors in design software and digital art.
Color Models for Digital Design
When working with digital design and art software, colors are defined using specific color models that allow control over hue, value, and chroma.
Here are some of the most common color models:
|Stands for Red, Green, Blue. Used for digital screens. Defines color by mixing levels of the red, green, and blue channels of light.
|Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black. Used for printing. Defines color by mixing levels of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink.
|Stands for Hue, Saturation, Value. Allows direct control over the hue, chroma/saturation, and value.
|Stands for Hue, Saturation, Lightness. Similar to HSV but with lightness instead of value.
Understanding these color models allows you to directly control hue, value, and chroma/saturation when selecting and mixing colors digitally. HSV and HSL are especially useful for fine tuning a specific hue and value.
Color Harmony Basics
Now that we understand the properties of color, how do we use them effectively? An important concept is color harmony – combining colors in aesthetically pleasing ways.
Here are some basic guidelines for harmonious color schemes:
- Complementary colors – These are colors opposite each other on the color wheel, like red and green. They create very vibrant contrast.
- Analogous colors – These are colors next to each other on the color wheel, like blue, blue-violet, and violet. They create a unified palette.
- Triadic colors – These are colors evenly spaced around the color wheel, like red, yellow, and blue. They form a balanced and vibrant combination.
- Split complementary – This uses one hue paired with the two hues adjacent to its complement. Provides a less jarring contrast than pure complements.
In addition to hue combinations, it’s important to use value and chroma/saturation strategically. Generally, you’ll want some variation in value to create contrast. And you’ll want to balance bright saturated colors with calmer desaturated colors.
Using Color Theory in Design
Understanding color theory principles allows designers to use color strategically to evoke emotions, establish visual hierarchy, and strengthen overall harmony in visuals and branding.
Here are some examples of color theory in design:
- Using complementary colors (like red and green) in a design provides vivid contrast and draws attention.
- Using analogous and triadic color schemes creates unified palettes for branding.
- Using desaturated and muted tones (low chroma) for backgrounds helps brighter colors stand out.
- Using darker shades (low value) for text helps with readability against light backgrounds.
- Varying saturation and brightness of the same hue creates diversity without visual disconnect.
Properly applying color theory takes practice, but it pays off by strengthening the visual impact of designs and branding.
Psychology of Color
In addition to their aesthetic impact, colors also carry psychological associations. Smart use of color psychology can enhance designs.
Here are some examples of psychological color meanings:
|Energy, passion, aggression, excitement
|Trust, security, calm, intelligence
|Nature, health, stability, renewal
|Happiness, optimism, clarity, sunshine
|Creativity, royalty, luxury, ambition
Leveraging these associations strategically can enhance the viewer experience. However, color meanings can vary by culture, so local context is important.
Understanding the intricacies of color is essential for effective visual design. The key concepts include:
- Hue – the pigment color (red, green etc).
- Value – lightness/darkness of color.
- Chroma – saturation/vibrancy of color.
- Color harmony principles for aesthetically pleasing palettes.
- Color psychology and symbolic associations.
Mastering color, value, and chroma allows limitless variations. Applying color theory principles results in more harmonious schemes. And using colors appropriately for their psychological effects enhances designs.
With some knowledge of these concepts, you’ll be able to make colors work for you in any visual medium and style.