07. Hue, Value, and Saturation


Through this assignment you’ll focus on examining the difference between hue, value, and saturation, which can commonly get mixed up with one another. By the end of this week you should be able to articulate the difference between the two and show that understanding in your work.


In short, going back to one of our first assignments, please remember that color is the visual byproduct of the spectrum of light as it is either transmitted through a transparent medium, or as it is absorbed and reflected off a surface. Color is the light wavelengths that the human eye receives and processes from a reflected source. In our class, we are using acrylic paints so we are dealing with color as it is absorbed or reflected back to our eyes. (The digital and film realm, including photography, deals with transparency.)

Color consists of three main integral parts:

  1. Hue
  2. Value
  3. Saturation (also sometimes called “chroma’)

We will explore these in more detail below. All of the definitions and explanations apply to the light absorption method.

1. Hue

Hue is more specifically described by the dominant wavelength and is the first item we refer to (i.e. “yellow’) when adding in the three components of a color. Hue is also a term which describes a dimension of color we readily experience when we look at color, or its purest form; it essentially refers to a color having full saturation, as follows:

When discussing “pigment primaries’ (Red, Yellow, and Blue), no white, black, or gray is added when 100% pure. (Full and complete desaturation of a hue is equivalent to true black.)

2. Value

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. It indicates the quantity of light reflected. When referring to pigments, dark values with black added are called “shades’ of the given hue name. Light values with white pigment added are called “tints’ of the hue name. Value only refers to the lightness or darkness quality of a color. If a color is called “low value”, that means it is darker in nature – think closer to the earth (dark soil) – and if it is called “high value” that means it is lighter in nature – think closer to the whitest, brightest sky.

In a standard color wheel, like the ones we first started out with, the colors shown are considered “mid value”. They are representations of color visually approximate to being in the middle center of a value scale.

For a concrete example of how to use these terms correctly, let’s focus on the primary red. A mid value red would appear as the red above show in our color wheel. A high value red would have much more white mixed into it and appear as a light pink. A low value red would have a darker appearance. This can be accomplished by mixing some black into it, or mixing the complementary of red into it, which would be green. The result we be a dark red that would read either as a deep rust or a muddy brown, depending on the quality of the pigments being used. (I personally prefer to mix my own darks via complementary color combinations rather than using black straight out of the tube. The results in term of hue complexity will be much more sophisticated. Black straight out of the tube can be very shallow in hue and can have a graphically flattening effect in painting.)

3. Saturation

Saturation defines the brilliance and intensity of a color. When a hue is “toned,’ both white and black (grey) are added to the color to reduce the color’s saturation. When a color has high saturation, the pigment intensity is vivid and bright. When a color is desaturated, or low saturation, the color appears to be “greyed out” or muted. Please note graphic below to help visualize what a desaturated primary red would look like. (See the second row, right hand side.)

Desaturation is probably a tool you’ve already been using in your own work but may not have come across the technical term for it before. Have you ever used atmospheric perspective in your work? If so, you’ve been using different saturation levels in your hues to create a convincing illusion of depth in your landscape work. Portions of the landscape that are supposed to be closer to the viewer will be more saturated and more detailed, whereas portions of the landscape that are supposed to be farther away from the viewer are less saturated (desatured) and less detailed.


This week’s assignments will all be in your journals so we can save your larger mixed media paper for our remaining assignments.

  1. Please do a seven square value scale for each primary (RYB). These three can be done on the same page if you have room to do so. You can reference the graphic above for inspiration, but here is a student example of a seven square scale that might be more concrete:

    Why seven squares? An odd number scale makes this assignment much easier since the middle of the scale can be the mid value color. Then next you’ll want to execute your highest and lowest values so each end of the scale is now identified. Then patiently mix your colors for the remaining squares so that each step looks visually even. Please note that if you want a color to look 50% yellow, for example, and 50% white the actual mixing process will not be 50/50. We want the hue to read that way, but since yellow has a much weaker pigment strength than blue or red, it can be easily overwhelmed. The opposite is true for primary blue. You’ll often need less blue and a great deal of white to make it read as 50/50.

  2. Please do a similar seven square desaturation scale for each primary.
  3. On a separate page, please use your newfound – or recently rediscovered – understanding of hue, value, and saturation to create a simple atmospheric perspective painting. By simple I mean focus in a straightforward manner on how these can be utilized to create an illusion of space. It is not necessary to go into great detail to have a narrative in this painting, such as a cabin, campfires, figures, etc. in the foreground or any other part of the painting for that matter. (Although you’re more than welcome to do so if you wish!)You are not limited to just one hue for this exercise. It should be fun, so please get as creative as you like. Here are a few general examples of what would be successful for this component:

  4. Please post a photo your results in the comments section of the correlating posts.


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