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Basic Colour Theory: The Terms You Need to Know


Although colour is the basic component of art, it is a more complex concept than it may seem. While many artists understand the technical names of colours, there are also a number of terms that define the attributes of colour at a more complex level. These include hue, chroma, tint, shade and tone.

shade, tone, colour, and tint graphic

Basic Colour Theory: What is hue?

Hue is a term that refers to the name of a colour. The terms “hue and “colour” are essentially interchangeable, although the word “hue” is more technically correct.

You may have also noticed that some paints have the word “hue” after the name. In the Derivan Artist range, two such examples are Cadmium Yellow Hue and Cobalt Blue Hue. In these cases the word hue indicates that the paints contains a combination of pigments that mimic the colour. For example, Cobalt Blue acrylic paint is blended with cobalt pigment. By comparison, Cobalt Blue Hue acrylic paint contains no actual cobalt pigment, but uses synthetic alternatives to create a very similar colour. This does not mean that the “hue” paint itself is inferior. It could be because the pigment may no longer be easily available or the manufacturer wishes to create a cheaper alternative for the more budget-conscious artist.

Basic Colour Theory: What is Chroma?

Chroma indicates how saturated the colour is. The greater the saturation of colour, the higher the intensity. Indeed the term “intensity” is a word that can be substituted for the term “chroma”. Strong colour intensity is often used to create bold and striking artworks.

Basic Colour Theory: What is tint tone and shade?

Three other descriptions that are frequently applied to colour are tint, tone and shade. These terms are all the result of adding different colours that alter the nature of the original colour.

If white is added to a colour and makes it lighter, this is referred to as a tint. Adding black to a colour is referred to as a shade, and adding grey to a colour creates a tone.

These terms are particularly important to artists because they assist in creating colours that will be represent either the mood the artist wishes to create, or indicate dimension and light effects. Although many artists believe that the use of colour alone can provide them with the effects they want, the role of tone is also important. A wide range of tonal contrasts will often give strong visual depth to painting, even if a limited palette of colours is used.   Although it is possible to create tones through the addition of either black or white, doing so can create unwanted changes to the original colour. Certain brown colours can take on a greyish tone when mixed with white, and reds can be transformed into pinks. With this in mind, Matisse has a number of acrylic toning colours suitable for mixing. These are categorised into light tones and dark tones and are as follows:


Antique White, Naples Yellow Light, Australian Salmon Gum (Red Bias Tinting Colour),

Australian Blue Gum (Blue Bias Tinting Colour)

The warm white colour of Antique White is a good alternative to titanium white, which is a pure white than be too harsh to create subtle tones. Antique White has a slightly creamy colour making it a solid choice for mixing with yellows, oranges, and warm reds.

Naples Yellow Light it is an opaque rich cream colour that owes its popularity to its versatility as a lightener. Overuse of pure white to lighten a colour can drain a colour of much of its vitality. Naples Yellow is very useful for lightening ochres, yellows, oranges, and yellowish reds. Mixed with a scarlet it creates salmon-like colours and is equally useful for blending into skin tones. Mixed with blues it can produce soft greens.

Australian Salmon Gum is a mixed colour that is typical of Salmon Gum trees native to Australia. Australian Salmon Gum gets its name from the dusty pink colours of the tree trunk. It is a very light orange with a pastel softness, opaque and well suited to the needs of the landscape painter.

Australian Blue Gum is a pale greenish blue colour that is a blend of white, Phthalo Blue, and a touch of black. It has a subdued nature making it a good choice for creating tones for creating skies, lush landscapes and oceans. The unique nature of this colour becomes apparent when making greens of all types.

antique white, naples yellow light, australian salmon gum, australian blue gum


Mars Black, Ivory Black, Carbon Black.

Although all these colours are all black they have distinct qualities that will become apparent when creating tones. Mars black is the warmest black, due to the slightly red nature of its pigment. This option has strong tinting strength and opacity.

Ivory Black is the strongest black and is also completely opaque. It is also a cooler black due to its slight bluish colour. If you are unsure of what black to choose, Ivory Black is a good starting point as it has a light tinting strength. Carbon Black is the most neutral black. But is not as opaque as either Mars or Ivory Black, and it a good choice to add to other transparent colours as it does not have dominant tinting qualities. When mixing colours one fundamental rules is to always dark into light, as it only takes a small amount of a dark colour to change a light one. Conversely, it will take a much larger quantity of a light colour to change a dark one. Begin by adding very small quantities mix well before adding more if needed. It is also useful to add opaque colour to transparent, as the opaque version have a greater influence on the result.

mars black, ivory black, carbon black

Basic colour Theory Book 

Have you ever wondered what colour makes brown? How do I create a bright orange? Have you struggled to mix colours? Artist Michelle Roberts wrote this colour theory book to help artists like you. It includes comprehensive colour theory and hands-on exercises. The Colour Book is an effortless and comprehensive approach to learning about colour, its principles, and how to incorporate it into your work.

Get your FREE copy of 'The Colour Book' and 'Colour Work Book' when you subscribe to our email list. This book gives you a complete and straightforward way to become familiar with colour, its principles and how to incorporate them into your artworks.





Learn and understand colour through theory and practical exercises. An effortless but complete and clear way to become familiar with its principles and how to incorporate them into your projects.

Colour, colour schemes, and the way you feel about colour, are all dealt with in this accessible and informative text. This book does not adhere to theoretical rules. You'll gain colour knowledge through exercises and activities as you build your knowledge about colour and its application in your artwork.

By doing the activities in this book, not just reading about them, you will improve your understanding of colour by 70%. In addition to this main publication, we have created  THE COLOUR WORKBOOK 

front cover of the colour book
front cover of the colour workbook


Companion publication to The Colour Book with step-by-step exercises and activities with diagrams and dedicated areas where you can put your learning to practice. 

The Colour Workbook, with black line masters for all the activities, included. You will be able to create copies of these to complete each of the exercises. It is recommended that these be copied onto paper that has a weight of around 110gsm to 130gsm to allow it to be painted on without buckling. This book has been written using Matisse Structure and Flow Formula acrylic paints from Derivan Pty Ltd. We have chosen this brand because of their extremely high quality and brilliant colours. You will, however, be able to use other brands – and you’ll find this book useful anywhere you’re thinking about colour