What Is Hue? | Understanding A Color's Hue | Color Theory For Artists

What Is Hue?

If you are going to create works of art in color you certainly must know what hue is. Your choice of hues in any drawing or painting will play a vital role to your artworks success.

This blog post on color: hue is a continuation of a previous discussion What Is Color?. I highly recommend you read that brief introduction to color if you have not already done so.

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What is Hue

A color’s hue is it’s placement on the color wheel . Hue is typically what gives a color it’s name. As an example, there are many different names for slightly different blues, baby blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, periwinkle blue, but each of these colors reside in the blue area of the color wheel.

A Bit of Science

What determines the hue you see is largely determined by the frequency of the light waves that end up interacting with your eyes. It’s often claimed by many art teachers that when you see a certain hue, let’s say “red”, the object that looks red looks that way because all the other wavelengths, the non-red wavelengths of visible light are absorbed and only the red is reflected. This process by the way is called selective absorption and while it does occur in the world around us it is merely one way to create color and just the tip of the iceberg as one might say.

Indeed, the science gets complicated. Did you know that sometimes when you see yellow you are actually seeing red and green light waves together? Drop that knowledge bomb on your old art teacher!

All of this talk of light science is fascinating and if I corner you somewhere and chew your ear off about it I’d like to apologize ahead of time. I happen to love the intersection at where art and science meet and find it only helps my understanding of the materials I use and the effects I strive for in my own artwork.

Understanding color does require some scientific analysis but let’s get back to what you need to know in order to get better at using color in your artwork.

In Walks (rolls) a Color Wheel

color wheel | helloartsy.com

Did you know that it took humans thousands of years to develop our modern day color wheel? The color wheel is an important tool that enables artists to predict what happens when you mix two colors together.

The color wheel is nothing more than a rainbow in a circle; it’s a spectrum of hues that continuously transition from one hue to the next, with no start or finish. It’s, elegant, it’s infinite! As an artist you need to get proficient at identifying a color’s hue. Regardless of how light a color is, how dull it is, or even what it is named, your career as an artist will be best served if you build a good working relationship between your eyes and your brain.

Practice looking at colors and determining where they exist on the color wheel. When you do this you are really asking yourself about the frequency of the light waves you’re seeing, but worry less about the science right now and more about the practicality of seeing and making colors with your paints or drawing tools.

Mixing the Right Color

When you mix two different hues together the result is a new hue. At the particle level this is a complicated process and if you ever what to read more about it I highly recommend Michael Wilcox’s book Blue And Yellow Don’t Make Green  which is a good, practical introduction to this topic.  It was one of the first books that put me on the path to understanding what was going on at the pigment level when I was mixing my paints.  In his book he explains the science behind paint mixing and at level absolute beginners can understand. It’s an eye opener for sure and includes invaluable diagrams. 

Since then I have read far too many books to mention but another standout gem that will help you understand the science of color is Margaret Livingstone’s Vision & Art. This book goes a bit deeper into the science of color and does venture a bit outside the bounds of what is practical for artists but the book really does belong on every artist’s book shelf nonetheless.  Livingstone’s book will leave you stunned as she fills in many gaps in your understanding of color.

For now let’s refer back to the color wheel, which lets us predict color mixtures. The color wheel allows us to predict what new hue we will get when mixing two hues. Take any two primary colors (primary colors are red/yellow/blue) and mix them.

The color wheel will predict the new color made. For example if you mix cadmium yellow and cadmium red the resulting hue will be orange. Take a look at the color wheel (download above) and you can see that orange is directly in between red and yellow. Now if I could only predict my financial investments with such accuracy!

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As always let me know if you have any questions below!

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