Hue is one of the three elements of color, with the other two elements being value (how light or dark a color is) and saturation (how bright or dull a color is). It basically refers to a color's position on the color wheel. Red, blue, green, yellow, orange—these are all different hues.
The Munsell color system is always a useful resource to turn to on matters of color. It provides that the "principal hues" are red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. These hues are positioned equally around the Munsell color wheel. In between are the "intermediate hues", being yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, and red-purple. Munsell also gave designations to each color: R, YR, Y, GY, G, BG, B, PB, P, and RP.
A key point to note is that hue is, for the most part, independent of saturation and value. For example, if I tell you an object is yellow, that only gives you information about the hue, but it tells you nothing about how light, dark, saturated, or dull that yellow is.
I will run through some examples of hue in action to make sure you understand exactly what it means, starting with a moody painting by Anders Zorn. As with many of Zorn's works, this is painted with a limited range of hues—mostly red and yellow (black is not considered a hue). But within that limited range, Zorn varied the level of value and saturation in order to convey a sense of realism.
On the other hand, here is a colorful painting by Claude Monet featuring a diverse range of hues—yellow, red, purple, blue, and orange. Typically, when you use so many different hues, it can be challenging to create a sense of unity and harmony throughout the work (the more hues you have, the more complex they are to manage). In this case, Monet united all the different hues under the umbrella of similar values. That is, all the hues are around the same level of lightness, except for the relatively dark, purple bridge.
Here is another painting by Monet featuring many different hues; but this time, he made no attempt to unite the colors. The whole point of the painting is a stark contrast between red, yellow, pink, white, and green.
After looking at thousands of master paintings, a key observation is that most of them feature a rather limited range of hues (usually three to four dominant hues). Think about that for a second—with the vast number of colors we can use as artists, most master paintings end up utilizing just a select few.
In my opinion, there are two reasons for this:
- First, if you try to balance too many different hues, your painting will likely become an incoherent mess. With every additional hue, you are introducing more complexity, sometimes with no added benefit.
- Most scenes, especially in nature, follow a certain theme which is determined by the light and various other factors. Remember, certain colors simply cannot exist under certain light conditions. This means that, unless you are painting under a balanced light with all kinds of different colored objects, you will usually only be dealing with a limited range of hues.
Hue seems to be important for setting the overarching theme of a painting. But from there, saturation and value do the rest of the work.
For example, below is a simple color exercise I do with Landscape Painting Masterclass students. We paint the same subject under varying conditions. Each color study represents a different combination (or theme) of hues. The theme helps differentiate between the vivid sunset study and the bright, sunny day study. But, within each color study itself, value and saturation are what create a sense of realism.
(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit).
Many artists overstate the importance of hue for painting with a quality of realism. Of course, you need to be roughly accurate (it will look odd if you paint a banana red). But, I find that accurate use of value, and to a lesser extent, saturation, are far more important for realism than accurate use of hue.
If you get your values right, you will have much more flexibility with your hues, without compromising the quality of realism.
Fauvist artists started to experiment with this idea. They painted with wildly inaccurate hues—red for the sky, green for the water, purple for the grass—but, because they painted with somewhat accurate values, their works retain a quality of realism (you can identify trees as trees, mountains as mountains, etc.).
In the still life below by Henri Matisse, notice the wild array of hues. But, there is still a sense of structure and realism which can be mostly attributed to the somewhat accurate values.
Matisse's Woman with a Hat would be a colorful abstract work if it were not for the values and edges. I have also provided a grayscale image of the painting, which takes hue out of the equation. The painting appears fairly realistic in grayscale, especially when you are not confronted by all the inaccurate hues.
In particular, take a look at the woman's face in the grayscale. I can see two dominant values (or tones): a mid-tone for her face in shadow, and a light tone for the highlights. Now, take a look at the woman's face in the color image. Notice all the different colors—green, purple, yellow, red, blue. This is an example of using hue variance within a compressed value range.
The Fauvists obviously took this idea to the extreme and I do not recommend you follow their use of color if you want to paint realistically. But, they were certainly onto something.
I will run through another example using one of my reference photos from Secrets on the Lake in Queensland, Australia.
You are able to do all kinds of interesting things with the colors in Photoshop. One of them is changing the hues, without changing the general value and saturation levels. You can see some of the variations below. Although some are unusual and certainly not what you would expect to see in life, you can still clearly make out what the scene is.
But, if you were to randomize or flatten all the values in the image, whilst keeping the hues the same, I doubt it would make any visual sense. There is a fantastic example of this here (see the third image in the post).
The key point is that, if you want to paint realistically, then focus most of your attention on value (and saturation to a lesser extent). Hue helps set the overarching theme for your painting, but if you get the values right, then you will have more flexibility with your hues.
First, a quick recap on color temperature:
Color temperature refers to our perception of a color as being warm or cool. We tend to associate blue and green as cool colors, and red and orange as warm colors. That does not mean they have an intrinsic and fixed temperature; it is merely based on our perception.
Incorrect use of color temperature is a common cause of "muddy colors". This happens if you paint an area which should appear warm with cool colors.
Now, back to hue.
Hue and color temperature tend to go hand-in-hand. A change in hue will usually result in a change in temperature. (That is one of the challenges of color—one change can have a domino effect on all the other elements).
In my New Zealand Reflections painting below, notice the color transition in the mountain: from deep blues for the shadows, to weak oranges for the lights. This represents a change in hue and temperature (from cool to warm).
Even amongst the blues of the mountain, there are subtle but important hue and temperature shifts. The snow is a much purer blue compared to the dark blue for the mountain in shadow. The dark blue contains just a touch of red, making it slightly warmer in temperature.
Some artists depart with the concept of hue altogether, thinking only in terms of value, saturation, and temperature. But, I still think hue is important for broadly categorizing colors, whereas temperature is useful for thinking about the subtle relationships and nuances.
Every single color has an underlying value somewhere between white and black. The top artists are able to easily and efficiently translate color into value. That is, they can look at a color and position it correctly on the value scale below.
An important point to note about hue and value is that, hues in their purest forms have different values. Pure yellow is lighter than pure blue; pure red is lighter than pure blue.
Also, the pigments we use in painting have fairly standard values (of course, there is some variance between different brands). Burnt umber and ultramarine blue are around the dark end of the value scale, whereas cadmium yellow is around the light end. Here is a fantastic chart representing the values of the common pigments.
All this can provide you with some important reference points to aid your color mixing (knowing the value of each color on your palette is invaluable).
In color mixing, the first thing you will learn is what happens when you mix two different hues together. As a quick refresher for you:
- The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow.
- When you mix two primary colors together, you get a secondary color (green, purple, and orange).
- When you mix all three primary colors together, or a secondary color with a primary color, you get a tertiary color.
- Colors which are on opposing sides of the color wheel are known as complementary colors. When you mix complementary colors, you are essentially mixing all three primary colors together. Again, the result is a tertiary color.
This covers most of what you need to know about hue and color mixing. The rest comes down to being able to get the value and saturation right.
As I mentioned in this guide, color mixing can be simplified to three basic questions:
- Is my color light or dark enough (value)?
- Is my color dull or saturated enough (saturation)?
- Is my color too warm or cool (hue)? Or, is my color too red, blue, or yellow?
Most of your attention should go to the first two questions. I usually do not care if my hue is not accurate, provided the value and saturation are.
We tend to associate certain colors with certain emotions. Red for anger and love; green for nature; orange for warmth, and so on. As a result, paintings may evoke different emotions based on the colors which are used.
For example, I get a feeling of calmness from the painting below by Monet.
On the other hand, I get a feeling of warmth and drama from his Sunset on the Seine in Winter.
With that being said, it is important to note that colors themselves are not emotional. A color is a color. How we perceive a color is based on just that: our perception (credit to Richard Schmid to shedding light on this for me in his book Alla Prima II).
You may wish to try and take advantage of psychological triggers in your paintings, but I would not let this area dominate your color decisions. I find that it is usually more effective to simply paint the colors you see. You can always push and exaggerate certain colors if you need help getting your message across (if you want to evoke a sense of anger, then push the reds which are already there, rather than forcefully making everything red).
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It will help you understand and use color more effectively in painting.)
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Hue is one of the three elements of a color, with the other two being value and saturation.
- For painting with a sense of realism, I would rank the three elements like this: 1. Value 2. Saturation 3. Hue.
- Hue is important for setting the overarching theme for your painting.
- If you get the values right, then you will have more flexibility with your hues, without compromising the quality of realism.
- Hue and color temperature tend to go hand-in-hand. A change in hue usually results in a change in temperature.
- Hues in their purest forms have certain values between pure white and pure black (pure colors are not all the same in terms of value). Ultramarine blue is much darker than cadmium yellow.
- For color mixing, make sure you understand what happens when you mix different hues together.
- We tend to associate certain colors with certain emotions. But remember, color itself has no emotion. A color is just a color.