Design Foundations Terms

Art 160/260 / Greg Clayton


this page is a growing list of terms used elsewhere on this site and in this course.


Additive Color:

Having to do with colored light and the way in which colored light mixes. Additive color is different from Subtractive Color, but both color phenomena have many similar traits.

Analogous Colors:
Analogous Color Scheme:

(a.k.a. Saturation, Intensity, and (sometimes) Brightness.)
The purity of a color.


Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black color specification system. Equivalent to "Four-color process" inks and print processes. This well-established color model and specification system is widely used in the printing industry. Most of your color magazine, textbooks and posters are printed using CMYK inks, CMYK printing and thus a CMYK color model and CMYK color specification system.


An artiist or designer whose works emphasize and exploit the evocative power of chromatic color.
Claude Monet is a prime example of a colorist. His paintings were explorations of color's effects and of color harmony. Subject matter, composition and tonal structure were reduced to a lesser or simplified role — the experience evoked by his paintings is due primarily to the power of color.
Contrast "Colorist" with "Tonalist".

Color Blindness:

An inability to distinguish hues.
Primary cause is genetic. There are no known cures. Likely due to damage or deficiency in the ganglion cells.
Most color blindness is not complete, but rather a partial or limited ability to "see" or distinguish between hues.
Men are statistically much more likely to experience color blindness than women.
The most common type of color blindness is red-green color blindness — red colors cannot be distinguished from green colors. (tough at traffic lights)

Color Scheme:
Color Specification System:
Color Specification:

An accurate and specific description of a particular color. Color spec systems allow designers to communicate which colors are to be used in a design and allow colors to be accurately mixed by other professionals.
There are many color specifcation systems in use today. Each color spec system is based on its own color model, and thus represents a particular way of thinking about color traits and color relationships. Each color spec system has advantages and practical disadvantages that, eventually, are important to professional design communications.
CMYK, Munsell, CIE Lab...

Complementary Colors:

In general, colors based on hues that are opposite on a color wheel. (though there are, in fact, many color wheels/models, thus there are varied types of complementaries).

Complementarity offers powerful contrast — hue contrast — when complementary colors are juxtaposed in composition.

Complementary Color Scheme:

A color scheme in which major/prominent hues are complementary and few, if any other hues are in use.

Complement Mix:

A color or paint that has been mixed from complementary colors. In practice, a controlled and richly varied color harmony can be established if complementary mixed colors are used extensively. ( see Complement Mixed Neutral)






Gamut (Color Gamut):

The range of color that can be either presented or discerned by an imaging device. ( wikiP | )


The most familiar aspect of color...yet the most awkward to explain. One of the three dimensions or traits of every color, in contrast to value and chroma.
For example, Red is a hue, Blue is a hue, Green, Violet and Orange are hues. There are many red hues-- some that lean red-orange and some that lean red-violet. There are also many color variations that maintain a constant hue — that is, dark reds, light reds, dull reds and intense reds. Yet each may have the same hue, only varying in chroma and/or value.

Hue Scheme:


Limited Palette

A color scheme which uses only a few distinct colors, rather than very wide variety of arbitrary colors.
Usually, the term "limited palette" infers that only a very few hues are used. The most familiar structured hue schemes use only 4 or fewer hues — and thus are very limited. Such schemes include:
1 hue (monochromatic),
2 hues (e.g. complementary, near-complementary),
3 hues (split complement, 3-hue analogous, triadic...) or
4 hues (e.g. double complement, double-split complement, quad, split-complement bridged...).
In practice, most color designs use a limited palette since a simplified, or limited, color palette is such reliable strategy for helping to unify a composition.


Similar to brightness and value. Applies to digital, light (additive) color.


Albert Munsell, color theorist and originator of the Munsell Color Specification System, a perceptual-based 3D color model and Munsell Color Wheel.

( Wikipedia )

Munsell Color Wheel
Munsell Color Model

A three-dimensional color model. Unlike many models, the Munsell model is oddly assymetrical since it is based on "just visible differences" in color. Consequently, the model presents many samples of a hue at its intrinsic value resulting in the model's overall irregular or "bumpy" form.
Vertical position represents Value.
Distance from the center axis represents Chroma.
Position/angle around the central axis represents Hue.
(Constant Hue Charts are a slice of a Munsell Color Model)

Munsell Color Specification System

Hue, Value and Chroma specifications are used. Hues are specified in one of two ways — though in this course, we only use and discuss one way. The Munsell color model (color wheel) is divided into ten hues — five primaries and five secondaries.
Value is specified between 1 and 10 (1=black; 10=white)

Chroma specifications begin at zero (pure neutral) and go to around 20 or so (there is no official "top end" for chroma). A Chroma of 12 or greater is usually considered "high".

( Wikipedia )

Near Neutral

see Neutral


Colors with little or no chromatic hue.

Among designers, the term neutral usually refers to the broad collection of Near Neutrals or Chromatic Neutrals. Among purist colorists, the term neutral may mean True Neutral.
To be clear, its best to clarify by using these more specific terms.

True Neutrals

A color having no chromatic hue. That is, only pure white, gray or black.

Near-Neutral or Chromatic Neutral

Colors with very low chroma — some presence of a hue, but quite subdued. In practice browns, tans, beiges, cool grays, and warm grays are Chromatic Neutrals.
Note that the term "Chromatic Neutral" is a contradiction, but a useful one. Neutral specifies the absence of chromatic hue, while chromatic asserts the presence of chromatic hue.

Complement-Mixed Neutral

The color may appear to be a pure neutral, but is more often a chromatic neutral. The important trait is the the color is mixed from (two or more) complementary (or near-complementary) hues/pigments. The result of this complement mixing is often a color which includes some hue traits of both of the source colors — that is, the color may have a presence of both green and of red. This visual complexity offers a richness that neutral-mixed colors generally do not offer.





Not allowing light to pass through — you can't see through it. ( definition )

Compare-contrast with Transparent and Translucent.



Source Colors

When mixing colors (or paints), these are the colors that you begin with. That is, these are the colors, or paints, that you actually combine within your mix in order to produce your target color. Source colors are the ingredients in the recipe.

Straight Line Mixing Method

This is a strategy for selecting source colors for use in color mixing. This method's goal is to make color mixtures and color adjustments more predictable and methodical. While all of us have and develop intuitions about color mixing, this method helps solve some tough mixing problems and helps us become familiar enough with color traits to be able to eventually mix on a more intuitive basis.

The premise:  This method asserts that any two (source) colors can be mixed so as to create any (target) color that lies on a straight line between those two colors.

The method assumes that you have access to some sort of color model or color map. While there are many color models and maps, and no two of them are equal, each can be used with some degree of success.
The Liquitex Color Map (still in production?) offers a convenient color model for mixing: [under construction]

A hue-chroma color wheel also offers an even more complete model for mixing: [under construction]

Subtractive Color

Different from Additive Color. Describes color mixing phenomena of paints, pigments, ink, crayons and other materials that alter color by means of absorbing, or subtracting, selective colors of light, while allow other colors to reflect or transmit.

Subtractive Primaries

Red, Yellow and Blue.
These are the basic or essential colors from which all other colors can be mixed with paint, pigments or inks. In practice, more hues are needed to create a satisfactory color gamut, but all visible colors can, at least, be suggested by mixtures of these colors.
CMYK, four-color process printing has refined these colors to Magenta (RRV), Yellow and Cyan (BBG). These three primary colored inks are used in the vast majority of printed color images, magazines, posters, billboards, etc.
In theory, it is possible to mix the three primaries to produce black. In practice you'll need just the right primary pigments in just the right proportions. More often you'll get a muddy gray.

Target Color

When mixing paint, this is the color you are aiming to mix — the color you would like to create.


An artist or designer whose work relies on the visual dynmamics of tonal contrasts and tonal patterns -- that is, designs that rely on value relationships.
The history of painting is sometimes divided into two schools of thought and practice — tonalists and colorists. In general, traditional Academic French paintings were tonal. The Impressionists were colorists. 20th c. Color Field painters were colorists.
Very rarely are both tone and color genuinely balanced — they tend to compete rather than complement each other. Michelangelo's (thorougly cleaned and restored) Sistene ceiling is a notable exception — volumetric forms are rendered powerfully by tonal modeling, yet there is also sophisticated use of bold and complementary hues. (The latter was buried under centuries of color-hiding soot untl the late 20th c. cleaning.)


Allowing light to pass through with little or no dispersal — that is, you can see through the material. (compare-contrast with translucent and opaque) (definition)


Allowing some light to pass through, though dispersing that light — that is, you cannot clearly see the forms on the other side. (e.g. frosted glass, milky plastic bottles) ( definition ).


The color trait of lightness or darkness. That is, black has a very "dark value" or "low value". White has a very "light value" or "high value".
See Intrinsic Value.


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