Color Terminology
from A to Z - part 1

Study the color terminology to develop your color vocabulary, better understand color theory and speak the language of color like a pro.

Color Terminology

Active / Advancing colors

See warm colors.

Additive Colors

This is the color of light, where adding all the colors together creates white light.

Afterimage / Aftermirage

After the eye has been stimulated by looking at one color for about 10-30 seconds, the afterimage of its complementary color is seen when one looks at a blank white surface. For example, if you focus on a red spot for half a minute or so and then look at a white wall, you will see a green spot. However, if you look at a dark/black wall instead after focusing on a red spot, you will see a positive image - a pale red spot.

Analogous / Adjoining Colors

Analogous, or adjoining color schemes are composed of two or three colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. For example, yellow-orange, yellow, and yellow-green are analogous colors. Note that every hue in this scheme contains at least a touch of the primary color, making the combination look harmonious and flowing.

Color Clashes

In color terminology, clashes or discords describe two colors of equal intensity, which cause visual discomfort. Designers and artists sometimes make use of this effect to create a disturbance and give the color scheme an "edge". Color clashes were most famously used in the rebellious 1960s - bright orange and shocking pink, for instance, or golden yellow and mauve.

Color Wheel

The paint color wheel arranges the 12 colors of the spectrum in a circle. Its primary purpose is to explain color mixing, help you identify color families and visualize different color harmonies and schemes.

Complementary Colors

Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are called complementary (red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple). When complementary colors are viewed together, they enhance and intensify each other - for example, in a green + red combination, green will appear greener, and red will look redder. But when mixed together, complementary colors neutralize, or "gray" each other out (when mixed in equal proportions, they make a neutral gray). In a complementary pair, one color is always warm, and the other is always cool - for this reason, complementary colors are considered the most balanced and popular combinations for painting and decorating a home.

Complex Colors

This color term refers to tertiary and quaternary colors. These colors are less vibrant, moodier and subtler than pure hues.

Cool Colors

The colors ranging from green through blue to violet on the color wheel are called cool, passive or receding - because of their short light waves that make them appear farther from you than they really are. For this reason, cool colors are a popular choice in small spaces. You can also find the three neutrals (white, black and gray) listed as "cool" colors in the color terminology books.

Dominant Color

See Monochromatic Colors.

Double-Split Complementary Colors

This home color scheme consists of four colors - one from each side of two complementary colors. For example, red-orange and blue-red, located on each side of red, form a double-split complementary combination when paired with blue-green and yellow-green.


All colors can be organized into groups, or color families. There are 6 basic color families - red, blue, yellow, green, purple and orange. For example, pink would belong to the red color family, turquoise to the blue one. Complex colors like brown, for example, can belong to the red, yellow or orange family - depending on how it was mixed. White, black and gray don't belong to any group, because technically, they are non-colors.


A color harmony is a combination of colors that lets the eye travel smoothly between them with no sharp contrasts. In color terminology, "color harmony" can also refer to a color scheme.


Hue is the quality which distinguishes one color from another. Each section of the color wheel is a hue. It is easiest understood as the name of a coor, or a color family, such as red. So even if a hue is tinted with white, toned down with gray, or shaded with black, it is still the same hue.


In color terminology, intensity is the strength/brightness or weakness/dullness of a color. It describes how much pigment there is in the paint - the more pigment there is, the stronger and less diluted/grayed the color will be. For example, a bubble gum pink is a high intensity color, while a dusty rose is a low intensity color. A dark color can have high or low intensity, as can a light color. In painting and decorating, high intensity colors are best used as accents. Complementary colors, placed alongside each other, increase each other's intensity. Intensity, chroma and saturation are synonymous color terms.

Intermediate Colors

When a primary color is mixed with an adjacent secondary color, an intermediate color is formed. For example, blue (a primary) and violet (a secondary) combine to make blue-violet, an intermediate. There are 6 intermediate colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet), and they bridge the gaps between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Mass Tones

A mass tone, also called a body or base color, refers to the predominant hue you see when you look at any color, disregarding any subtle nuances/undertones. For example, the mass tone of olive green is green.

Monochromatic Colors

When one color is used throughout its shades, tints, intensities and values it is called a monochromatic or dominant paint color palette. For example, you can create a monochromatic scheme by combining pastel blue, french blue, royal blue and navy blue in different amounts.

Native Colors

Native colors are basic inorganic pigments used in artist's oil paints - yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber, and lampblack. Each one complements a pure hue and can be used to dull or lessen the intensity of the color and its natural complement. The more native color is added to a pure hue or its complement, the grayer and duller the result.

To continue studying color terminology, see "Color Terms From A to Z - part 2".

Paint Color Cheat Sheets
Paint Color Cheat Sheets

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