Colour Terminology in two minutes.

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

Hello! How does a quick read about colour terminology sounds to you? Let’s not dwell much in the theory and enjoy the pretty pictures.

Meet the colour wheel

The colour wheel is the most traditional way to conceptualize colors. According to their purity, colours can be:

  • Primary: cannot be obtained by mixing others. They’re the origin of any other.
  • Secondary: resulting from a mix of two primary colours.
  • Tertiary: mixes from a primary and a secondary colour.

These colours are what we also know as hue. And then depending on how you mix any pure colour with white, grey or black, you get different tints, tones or shades:

  • Tints: you add different percentages of white and obtain softer, pastel colours.
  • Shades: adding black, on the other hand, makes darker, more intense colours.
  • Tones: are obtained by mixing with grey and what we get is a de-saturation of the pure colour.

Also, remember we have two different ways to understand colour: Additive and Subtractive.

Additive colours:

This is how we understand colours based on our visible light spectrum. You know, when you were little and played around with a crystal prism to see the light ray become a rainbow? That is because the white light contains all other colours combined, and the crystal splits the ray into different wavelengths that in our eye receptors become different colours.

It is also the way we combine colour on a screen. The additive primary colours are Red, Green and Blue, and if you add them all you get white, while the absence of these colours means black. RGB, Hex and HSL/HSB values are notations for additive colours.

Subtractive colours:

Subtractive colours are the opposite, and this is the scheme we usually learn when we are kids. We start with a white paper, which is the absence of colour, and adding the primaries makes us get to black (usually passing through disturbing shades of brown depending on the quality of your markers…).

It’s the scheme for traditional painting and printing, where we use the CMYK notation for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. But, how come? Didn’t I just write that combining the primary creates black? Why do we need another black in printing? If you want to know more about this, check out this PrintNinja article about the difference between Rich Black and True Black.

Also, did you noticed that we never really mentioned Red, Blue and Yellow as primaries? That is because we cannot get all possible colour combinations with them, even if they teach us that these are primary colours. So yeah, we’ve been lied to!

So now you know how colours work. Congrats!

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