What is Saturation? | Exploring the Art & Science of Color Saturation

What Is Saturation?

Saturation tends to be the hardest component of color to understand. After reading this post you’ll have a clear understanding for what is saturation.  You’ll finally grasp how to see and use saturation in your everyday artwork!


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What is Saturation

Saturation describes the purity of a color and along with hue and value it represents one of the three properties of color. There are many terms used to describe saturation. Sometimes you will hear artists describe a color as being “dull”. These artists are referring to color that has a decreased saturation or has been desaturated.


Desaturation is not a term you’ll find in the dictionary but is used often by artists.  Desaturation is a term used to describe color that is less than saturated, color that has been dulled down.

Synonyms to Saturation:

  • Dullness
  • Intensity
  • Chroma

Learning To See Saturation

Because saturation depicts how pure or intense a color is it is best to talk about saturation in a comparative sense.  Look at the photograph below. 

Which color sample is more highly saturated? A skilled painter knows that cadmium yellow light is a more saturated yellow when compared to yellow ochre. 

Hopefully you’re starting to understand what saturation is through this simple visual example, but let’s continue…

yellows: ochre vs. cadmium

Notice that we are referring to the difference in saturation between the two colors, not how light or dark these colors are.

It’s true that the yellow ochre is slightly darker in value when compared to the cadmium yellow light. However, we could add white to the yellow ochre to make it the same exact value as the cadmium yellow light. Then, their only difference would be that of saturation.

Art Teacher Tip: Having your art students create a saturation matrix (see image below) with paint or colored pencils is a great exercise for learning about saturation. You can download a free saturation matrix on the resources page.

Learning Color Saturation: Saturation Matrix

A saturation matrix is also what you get when you pull up the color picker in Adobe’s Photoshop or Illustrator graphical editing software.

While the saturation matrix above contained 5 rows and 5 columns PhotoShop’s color picker contains 256 rows and 256 columns. Wow, that’s a lot of color! That’s also the reason it looks like a smooth gradation.

Photoshop's color picker

Mixing Paints & Saturation

There are many ways to decrease the saturation of your paint but there is no way to increase the saturation. Saturation is a destructive process as far as drawing and painting is concerned. Once you mix two colors together you have automatically decreased the saturation of the original colors. This is precisely why the color wheel artists use is often referred to by folks in the scientific community as the subtractive color wheel.

color wheel | helloartsy.com

So how do I make saturated colors?

You can’t. Not with paint or drawing media at least. You have to start out with saturated colors and each time you mix them together the new combinations get less and less saturated. That’s why most tubes of paint are extremely saturated when you buy them.

That’s also the reason why you can mix “mud” when mixing too many colors together. “Mud” as some artists call it is simply an undesirable color that has largely been desaturated.

Controlled Desaturation

Very few items require full strength color or “out of the tube” color as I like to call it. Instead, you’ll find yourself in need of dulling down your paints, pastels, or colored pencils.

There are a couple of ways to do this. I’ll use paint as an example but the following advice applies to drawing media as well. Take ultramarine blue for example. Ultramarine blue as an extremely saturated blue that leans slightly towards blue-purple when located on the color wheel.

Here’s two different ways to decrease the saturation of ultramarine blue.

  1. You could mix a gray into the ultramarine blue paint and as long as the gray and blue were equal in value and the gray was truly neutral you would not be changing the hue or value, but only the saturation.
  2. You could mix a complementary color with your ultramarine blue. Mixing an orange that leans slightly towards yellow would do the trick*. Depending on the brand of paint, you’ll probably find that by mixing cadmium orange or even a cadmium yellow deep into ultramarine blue will reduce its saturation (make the blue duller).

*Working with complements will reduce the saturation of a color but will also shift the hue a bit as well.

Neutral Colors

As you desaturate a color you are making the color more neutral. Some artists refer to the reduction of a color’s saturation as neutralization.

Going back to our example with the cadmium orange paint and the ultramarine blue paint. A small drop of orange will begin to neutralize our blue color. If we continue adding orange we will completely neutralize the color making it hue-less.

A neutral color is a color with no identifiable hue. So a neutral color is really white, black or any of the grays in between white and black. Most painters can confirm that a pure neutral is almost impossible to find as most neutrals lean slightly towards a specific hue.


In this series:


Hopefully by now you’ve got a better understanding for what is saturation.  Will this help you better understand saturation in your artwork? Please leave a comment below!

15 Comments

  1. Being new to using Copic markers, This really helped me to quickly understand saturation. Thanks!

    1. John Morfis says:

      That’s fantastic Harriet. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I have a student that wants to increase the saturation, which I have already told him is impossible with mixing, however, after thinking for a bit I suggested optical mixing. I also suggested making sure that the surrounding colors are dark. Do you think this is a viable option? I am in a small rural school with a very tiny art budget (although I am always trying to get more interest in the art department by entering my students in shows/contest and any public projects) and so any alternatives to using the colors I already have is always a plus!

    1. John Morfis says:

      I love the fact that you are taking the time to think about these things. I’ll try to cover each of your concerns/ideas one at a time and add some other considerations:

      • Optical mixing is a good idea in theory but it won’t work well because you’ll be optically mixing from light derived from pigments (subtractive mixing).
      • Yes, providing contrast is a wonderful idea and will prove effective. We experience color largely based on a color’s surroundings. I’m thinking of those old cheesy paintings on black velvet! On a more serious note, there are plenty of painters that purposely have the majority of a painting very low in saturation and then spike our vision with a few highly-saturated moments of color… very exciting and effective.
      • Pigment choice matters too. For reds, quinincridones are very saturated, pthalo for blue, etc…
      • Working with translucent layers increases a paint’s saturation as opposed to mixing. For example, glazing alizine crimson over white will be more saturated as compared to the same value made by mixing with white paint. Strange but true. This is the method used by many sunset landscape paintings (Hudson River School comes to mind). If you use a transparent paint the light waves go through, bounce off the substrate (white layer is effective) and bounce back out. The color gets filtered twice making the color more saturated. This is also why those old hot-rod paint jobs… think “candy apple red” look soooo red
      • A shiny top coat (varnish) also increases a paint films saturation. I’ll spare you the details as to why. Combine these last two points for massive color saturation
      1. Your explanations are fantastic! And yet they leave me with more questions to learn about what is optical mixing and subractive mixing. Do you have information on this?

        1. John Morfis says:

          Having more questions can be the hallmark of a healthy brain heading in the right direction Julie…this is good. I’ve written so many hundreds of articles and lessons I cannot recall, but I can tell you this:

          Optical mixing (partitive mixing) is when two or more color spots are seen collectively from far enough away so that your brain “sees” the mix of the two or more colors. This is what your screen that you are reading on does to create the apparent millions of colors. It’s also what ink jet printers do with all of those tiny dots! Strangely enough there is always some degree of optical mixing going on with almost everything….your paints included.

          Subtractive Mixing is what we use to describe the circumstance under which we “create” new colors from two or more colorants (pigments or dyes). When you physically mix red paint and yellow paint we end up with a resulting “orange paint” only because the “orange” was present in both original colors to begin with. We are subtracting all of the non-common colors to arrive at the “new” mixed color. This like many color conversations quickly gets complex and is best illustrated with overlapping wave forms. Anybody who tells you red looks red because it ONLY reflects red wavelengths of color is misinformed and you should thank them for their time and walk away fast. It’s not true. Every color reflects different quantities of all colors. And not to confuse you but when I say color it is really just your brain’s response to a wavelength of visible light because after all color is just a sensation in your brain 🙂

          1. Thank you for the quick reply! I like your explanation with examples that I can comprehend like the ink jet printer. I did read your definition of color and wavelengths and I haven’t wrapped my head around that quite yet. Needless to say I went looking for scientific answers and found them here. 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your valuable knowledge about value, neutrals and saturation. Very clear! I got loads out of it!

    1. John Morfis says:

      Oh good I’m glad Wensie!

  4. Article is a big help. Thank you! I’m doing a beach scene of my husband and granddaughter walking along the water’s edge. While doing a study, I came across paintings of Frederick Remington. I fell in love with his use of cowboy scenes done in such wonderful outdoor bright light! I decided to try and do my painting placed in that kind of light. It is a much truer depiction of the intense reflective light present on many days we’ve spent at the beach. The intense light bounces off of everything! Your article will be a great help
    in getting my painting there to some degree and makes the learning fun!
    Thanks, again.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Best of luck Joanne.

  5. Hi there! I love color theory and found this page! I have come to the conclusion that only primary colors are pure saturated colors. Is that correct? Your example of the yellow ochre and the cad yellow at the top of the page implies this. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Thank you very much.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Not quite Julie! …but I must admit saturation can mean some different things depending on the context. Sometimes artist will refer to saturation in a more localized sense in that paint out the tube is 100% saturated and as soon as they start mixing it, the saturation is reduced. But saturation can also be compared as absolutes…that’s what I did in this article with the yellow ochre vs. the cadmium yellow. So it depends on the context. And saturation as programmed into graphical programs can yet again vary in how they define and manipulate saturation. Confusing I know. This is one of the reasons I’m drawn to the quantitative aspects of art. Honestly, get familiar with my article on Munsell. It defines saturation (chroma) in a much more useful way for artists.

      1. Well again you have nailed it down. I was under the impression that “paint out the tube is 100% saturated and as soon as they start mixing it, the saturation is reduced”. Then I read your article. “Saturation can also be compared as absolutes.” So the example of ochre vs cad yellow had me perplexed. This is where I’m stuck now. So I will follow your link and read fully the article on Munsell color. Again thank you for the quick reply.

        1. John Morfis says:

          My pleasure Julie…check out the book: Vision & Art by Margaret Livingstone…it’s a great resource on the science of color.

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