Color Theory 101: Part III – Saturation (Chroma)

Color Theory 101: Part III – Saturation (Chroma)

While it isn’t necessary to have a scholarly knowledge of color theory, it helps to know a little bit about it to advance our coloring technique. In this last article in the basic color theory series, I discuss color saturation, or chroma. The other two essential attributes of color are hue and value, which were examined in the October 2015 and November 2015 issues of Color On!

Technically speaking, saturation refers to the brightness of a color in the light spectrum, while chroma is the word used to describe this same aspect of color in a physical object. The two words, however, are often used interchangeably. For this article, I use the word saturation in relation to coloring books, which are physical objects.

What is Saturation?

The concept of something being saturated, such as a sponge that is completely full of water, can also be applied to color theory. Color saturation describes the purity of a hue (or color). A color that is 100% saturated is one that does not have any gray added to it. For example, the Orange Prismacolor pencil below is a 100% pure hue applied to the paper, generating a 100% saturated orange mark. Applying grey to the orange changes its degree of purity and its apparent color accordingly. The new colors still appear to be in the orange family, but now each in turn is less intensely orange.


When using colored pencil, the amount of pigment that is applied to the paper can be thought of in terms of saturation as well. A thin application of color, as seen on the left in the image above, is lighter in value than the orange on the far right. The white of the paper acts to change the value of the orange toward a lighter, less intense orange. While this is actually a change in value and not saturation (chroma), pressing harder on the pencil to apply more pigment to the paper can be thought of as increasing the brightness or intensity of the color. Adding more pigment fills the “tooth” of the paper and thus the paper becomes more saturated with color. This technique can be readily applied to any of the colored pencil hues we have in our own collections. It can be used to draw attention to areas in your coloring page, or to indicate a darker area without actually adding any grey or complimentary color to the hue.

Saturation Can Be Relative

chroma2Colors can also be thought of as having saturation or intensity relative to each other. For instance the Lemon Yellow at left appears less intense (less saturated) than the Crimson Red. This idea of relative color intensity is quite subjective. It is most useful in terms of thinking about how objects in a coloring page recede or come forward visually. Less intense colors appear to recede into the distance while more intense colors appear to be closer. This is especially true as one views the landscape. Most of us have experienced how landscapes appear softer and more “grey” as the intensity of color fades with distance.


Putting It All Together

The Munsell Color chart helps us to understand how hue, value and saturation (chroma) are related to each other. The Munsell Book of Color (Actual title: A Color Notation) depicts 40 pure hues and their color families. The system was developed my Albert H. Munsell in 1929 and is still used today by students and professionals who work with color.


The image above represents one page from Munsell’s book. The pure red hue is the square in the middle and to the far right at the apex of the chart. Vertically the addition of white (up) and black (down) changes the value of the pure hue, while horizontally the addition of grey desaturates the pure hue (from right to left). The entire chart thus shows the family of reds that can be created with the pure hue. Anyone interested in exploring color in depth should visit the Munsell website.

From this three part series, I hope I have provided you with enough of a basis for color theory to help you when coloring. However, as you approach your work, don’t let this knowledge stop you from letting go, listening to your feelings, and going with your own color intuition. Color on!

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