Hue, Value, and Chroma in a Paint Color

Paint brush with oil paint on a classical palette
Paint brush with oil paint on a classical palette. Hedda Gjerpen/E+/Getty Images

Colors are the basic elements of a painting. Gaining an intimate knowledge of the personalities of the colors you use is crucial in learning to paint. We tend to simply call paint a particular color, whether general such as “light blue”, more poetic such as “aquamarine blue”, or specific such as “ultramarine blue”. But in fact, every color has three sides to its personality: hue, value, and chroma.

A painter trying to mix a color on their palette to accurately match a color in their subject needs to consider all of these. If you don’t, you’re doomed to never get the color mixed correctly.

What is Hue?

Hue is the easiest to understand: at its most basic, it’s artspeak for the actual color of a pigment or object. But the use of hue becomes more complicated when it comes to the names that paint manufacturers give their paint colors. This is because the term “hue” is used to indicate that a color is not made from the pigment(s) that were originally used for that paint, but modern equivalents that are either cheaper or more lightfast. Judging a hue is the first step in color mixing as it identifies what tube of paint to reach for.

What is Value?

Value or tone is a measure of how light or dark a color is, without any consideration for its hue. Think of it as taking a black-and-white photo of a subject where you clearly see what’s in the photo but everything’s in grayscale.

The problem with a color’s value or tone is that how light or dark it seems is also influenced by what’s going on around it. What appears light in one circumstance, can appear darker in another circumstance, for instance when it’s surrounded by even lighter tones. 

What is Chroma?

The chroma or saturation of a color is a measure of how intense it is.

Think of it as “pure, bright color”, compared to a color diluted with white, darkened by black or gray, or thinned by being a glaze. Variations in chroma can be achieved by adding different amounts of a neutral gray of the same value as the color you're wanting to alter.

But Aren’t Value and Chroma the Same Thing?

Color mixing would be easier if they were, but they’re not. With chroma, you’re considering how pure or intense the hue is, whereas with the value you’re not considering what the hue is at all, just how light or dark it is.

Do I Need to Consider Hue, Value, and Chroma Every Time I Mix a Color?

As a beginner painter, yes you do. But the good news is that but with experience of color mixing, it becomes easier and less of a systematic process. Initially, it’s well worth taking the time to consider the hue, value, and chroma in a color you’re want to match, making a judgment or decision on each before you attempt to mix the color. You'll waste less paint and not have as much frustration by mixing the “wrong” colors.