What is Color Saturation?
Color saturation refers to how vivid, rich, or intense a color is. It is one of the three elements of color, with the other two being hue and value.
Below is a saturation scale showing what happens when you take a vivid red and gradually lower the saturation until you have pure gray:
Most artists consider saturation to be more important than hue, but less important than value for painting with a sense of realism.
Saturation Versus Chroma
The term saturation is often used interchangeably with the term chroma. They broadly mean the same thing, however, it is important to understand the subtle difference between the two terms.
Saturation is a relative term. It describes a color's brilliance in relation to pure gray.
Chroma, on the other hand, is an absolute term that can be measured on a scale. In the Munsell Color System, each color has been designated a chroma rank, from 0 for gray to 12+ for vivid colors.
If you were being particular, then chroma is more appropriate than saturation for comparing the brilliance of two different colors. But practically speaking, your use of saturation or chroma will not influence your painting. Personally, I only use the term saturation to describe a color's brilliance and avoid the use of chroma to keep things simple.
The Challenge With Highly Saturated Colors
The main challenge of painting with highly saturated colors is that it is easy to confuse them with being lighter than they actually are.
Take cadmium red for example. This is a highly saturated, or vivid, red. If you were to place this color on a value scale somewhere between white and black, where do you think it would go?
Most beginners would probably guess too light. That is because it is easy to confuse high color saturation with lightness in value. For reference, below is the color in grayscale. It is around the middle value range.
Note: Being able to identify the value of a color in isolation is a useful skill, but remember that it is always much harder when you are actually painting. That is because you are dealing with so many other variables.
How to Alter Color Saturation
There are several ways you can alter the saturation of a color. However, you need to be aware of the implications a change in saturation might have on the other two elements: hue and value.
Below are the different ways you can alter the saturation of a color and the other implications:
Add gray: The hue will stay roughly the same and the value will get closer to the value of the gray. If the gray is the same value as the base color, then the value will also remain unchanged.
Add white: The color will get slightly cooler in temperature and the value will get lighter. This is also known as a tint.
Add black: The hue will change slightly depending on the type of black you use and the color will get darker in value. This is also known as a shade.
Add the color's complement: For example, add red with green, or blue with orange. The hue and value will change depending on the portion of each complementary color you use.
Add some other low saturation color: For example, raw umber, or the left-over "mud" on your palette after a long painting session. The hue and value will change depending on the color of the "mud". This is the most unpredictable option for altering a color's saturation.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It will help you understand and use color more effectively in painting.)
Saturation and Atmospheric Perspective
Atmospheric perspective provides that as an object recedes into the distance, it starts to take on the appearance of the surrounding atmosphere. As part of this, colors tend to get weaker and less saturated in the distance. One of the main exceptions to this might be if you were painting a vivid sunset in the distance and you want to really draw attention towards the light.
In Isaac Levitan's Spring in Italy, notice how the colors step down in saturation as they recede into the distance. The foreground is filled with vivid pinks, greens, and blues. This brings this area forward in perspective, whilst the background of weak colors falls back.
Below is another example by the masterful landscape painter Edgar Payne. The strong oranges, greens, and blues jump forward, whilst the weak tints in the background fall back.
You should also note that the colors are not only getting weaker in saturation, but they are also getting cooler in color temperature and lighter. Saturation is playing just a small yet important part of the big picture.
Atmospheric perspective is more relevant for landscape painting where you are dealing with a long depth of field. It is less significant for still life or portrait painting where everything is much closer to you in perspective.
(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit).
Using Saturation to Draw Attention
Saturation can be a powerful tool for drawing attention towards your focal points. Just a few small dabs of vivid color amongst a dull background will stand out like a beautiful violin solo amongst the background choir.
However, you need to be careful that you do not overdo it; less is more in this case. Too much color saturation might seem jarring and garish. You want to make a powerful statement that is still in line with the rest of your painting.
Remember, painting is all relative; your statement only needs to be powerful in relation to everything else in your painting. If you have a subtle painting filled with grays and weak colors, then it will only take a small burst of color to make a powerful statement. But, it may take something more if you are painting a bright Impressionist landscape filled with saturated greens, blues, and yellows.
Below is a perfect example of using color saturation to draw attention by Claude Monet. The relatively vivid orange sun and its reflection stand out from the surrounding weak colors.
What I find interesting about this painting is that there is almost no value contrast with the sun and its reflection—they are around the same value as the surrounding colors. The grayscale image below shows you what I mean. Notice how without color, the sun and its reflection are barely visible. Monet relied mostly on color saturation and hue to draw attention to the sunset.
In John Singer Sargent's A Dinner Table at Night, vivid red is used to draw your attention towards the female figure around the middle. The rest of the painting is comprised of nothing but black, grays, and other weak colors.
In Visiting, Abram Arkhipov used saturated pinks and yellows to help emphasize the area in light.
In William Wendt's landscape Red Poppies, the vivid red jumps out from the background of dull green. Not only is there a contrast in level of saturation (vivid against dull ) but also hue (red against green). Red and green are complementary colors, meaning they naturally contrast against each other.
Dull Paintings (Low Saturation)
Below are some examples of dull (low saturation) paintings:
Bright Paintings (High Saturation)
Below are some examples of bright (high saturation) paintings:
Color Saturation Exercises
The following exercises will help you understand and see color saturation:
Monochrome or dull palette painting: Create a painting with a monochrome or dull color palette. This will teach you to be more sensitive to changes in color saturation.
Complementary color painting: Paint a simple composition with just two complementary colors (yellow and purple, or red and green). This will teach you how to balance the saturation of two competing colors.
Color charting: Take your main palette of colors and chart out the different possible combinations of colors. Observe changes in color saturation as two colors are mixed.
Color saturation scale: Pick a base color then gradually lower the saturation without changing the value. You will end up with a saturation scale, like the one shown at the start of this post.
- Color saturation is how vivid, rich, or intense a color is.
- Be careful not to confuse highly saturated colors as being lighter than they really are.
- There are many different ways to alter the saturation of a color, but be mindful of any changes to the other elements, being hue and value.
- As an object recedes into the distance, the colors tend to get less saturated (weaker). This is due to atmospheric perspective.
- Color saturation is a powerful tool for drawing attention to your focal point. But remember, less is more.