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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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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!