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Colour Glossary, Terms and Definitions

This glossary of terms is Colour related. It covers most of the colour terms and vocabulary used by many designers on a daily basis. These can be confusing to clients who need to communicate with designers. This is a work in progress and updates are made frequently.

Achromatic – Literally, without colour. In art, a composition in shades of black, white and gray.

Additive – Colours made by light; the additive primaries are red, green and yellow.

After-image – The illusion of a visual complementary colour image that occurs after staring at a hue, then shifting the gaze to a plain white surface.

Analogous hues – Colours that lie next to each other on the colour wheel.

Attributes of colour – The three main descriptions or properties of colours, namely hue, value and intensity.

Balanced colour – Colours that are balanced by their complements and varied across their values and intensities.

Binocular vision – Two retinal images, one from each eye, melted by the brain’s visual system into a single image that appears three-dimensional.

Chroma – The degree of purity or brilliance of a colour.

Chromaticity – A term interchangeable with Chroma, saturation and intensity.

Colour constancy – The psychological tendency to see colours we expect to see even when the actual colours are different.

Colour harmony – The pleasing result of balanced colour relationships.

Colour scheme – a set of colours chosen to combine within a composition.

Colour wheel – A two-dimensional circular arrangement of colours that reveals colour relationships of the spectral hues.

Complement, complementary – Colours that lie opposite each other on the colour wheel. Placing them side by side enhances the brilliance of both; mixed together, they cancel the intensity of both.

Composition – The arrangement of shapes, spaces, lights, darks and colours within the format of an artwork.

Cool colours – Colours that connote the coolness of water, dusk and vegetation: usually violets, blues and greens.

Crosshatching – a method of shading by using short parallel lines, often in superimposed sets of lines crossed at various angles to darken an area.

Double complementary – A colour combination of four hues: two sets of complements such as red/green and blue-violet/yellow-orange.

Dyad – A colour scheme based on two colours.

Glaze (oil) / Wash (water media) – A transparent film of colour painted over another colour.

Grisaille – A method of painting that uses shades of gray in an underpainting to establish the value structure in a composition.

Hue – The name of a colour.

Intensity – The brightness or dullness of a colour; also called Chroma, chromaticity and saturation.

Line – A narrow mark that defines the edges of spaces and shapes in a composition. Line can also be used for shading, as in crosshatching.

L-mode – The language mode of the brain, usually located in the brain’s left hemisphere and characterized as a verbal, analytic and sequential mode of thought.

Local colour – The actual colour seen on objects or persons.

Luminosity – In painting, the illusion of radiance or glow.

Monochromatic – In painting, a work based on variations of one colour.

Monocular vision – By closing or covering one eye, the brain receives a single image, which appears to be flat like a photograph.

Negative spaces – In art, the shapes that surround the objects; sometimes considered background shapes.

Palette – A surface for holding pigments and providing space for mixing paints.

Perceptual colour – The actual colours of objects and persons.

Pictorial colour – The adjustments to perceptual colour needed to bring a colour composition into unity, balance and harmony.

Pigment – Dry colour ground to a fine powder and mixed with a liquid for use as a painting medium.

Primary colours – Colours that cannot be mixed from any other colours—for example, red, yellow and blue.

Reflected colour – Colour reflected from one surface to another.

R-mode – The visual mode of the brain usually located in the brain’s right hemisphere and characterized as a visual, perceptual and global mode of thought.

Saturation – A term signifying the brightness or dullness of a colour: used interchangeably with intensity, Chroma and chromaticity.

Scumble – A technique similar to glazing, except that the coating is opaque and is just painted on very thinly to allow bits of the paint below to shine through

Secondary Colours – Colours that are mixtures of two primaries—for example, mixing yellow and red (theoretically) makes orange.

Shade, shading – In Ostwald’s model, colour changes made by adding black, thus decreasing the proportion of the original colour.

Simultaneous contrast – The effect of one colour on an adjacent colour.

Spectrum, spectral hues – The sequence of colours seen in a rainbow or in the colours created by passing light through a prism.

Style – An artist’s personal, usually recognizable, manner of working with images and art materials.

Subtractive colour – Pigments and pigment mixtures used in painting that absorb all wavelengths except those of the colour or colours apparent to the eye.

Successive contrast – Interchangeable with after-image.

Tertiary colours – Colours made by mixing a primary and its adjacent secondary—for example, the tertiary yellow-orange results from mixing the primary yellow and the secondary orange.

Tetrad – A colour scheme based on four hues equidistant on the colour wheel—for example, green, yellow-orange, red, and blue-violet.

Tint – A light value of the colour.

Toned ground – A thin wash of a neutral colour on a surface to prepare it for painting.

Triad – A colour scheme based on three colours equally spaced from each other on the colour wheel—for example, yellow, red, and blue.

Underpainting – A preliminary toning of the surface to be painted, often somewhat more detailed than a toned ground.

Unity – The ruling principle of art and design, which all parts of an artwork contribute to the harmonious unity of the whole.

Value – The degree of lightness or darkness of a colour.

Warm colours – Colours associated with heat or fire, such as red, orange, and yellow.


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