Color Like a Pro: Hue and Saturation

April 13, 2016 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

Coloring Like a Pro

Color Like a Pro Hue and SaturationColoring couldn’t be easier. Once you have a drawing  you want to color, you simply pick the colors you want and apply them to the right bits of your drawing, right? Well, sort of…

You can do it that way an there’s nothing wrong with that.  Color has A LOT to do with instinct and what seems right to you. But that will only get you so far.

Once you start really looking into color you will begin to see that it’s a bit more complicated than  simply picking the colors you want something to be.  Especially when you want to get into more advanced coloring. The type of coloring professionals tend to use.

In this lesson we’re going to go over two of four very important concepts that will help you understand how best to use color. Namely: Hue and Saturation.

The other two concepts, value and temperature, will be dealt with in Level 2. They tend to have much more in common with rendering and shading. Which are concepts I haven’t even written about at all.

Once you’re done with this lessons, you’ll have a much better understanding on how best to use and control colors in your drawings. These concepts are foundational in order to get into things like getting very painterly looking cartoons.

Hue and Saturation

First let’s begin by understanding what Hue and Saturation are:


Hue is simply a color.  Red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, aqua, whatever.  Hue is the intended color as it ought to be. No variations.

That’s it.  Simple.


Saturation on the other hand is a little more tricky. Saturation is color intensity.  All colors have a peak called “maximum Chroma”.  A point where the colors are as clear and as pure as they can be.  At that point, a color is in it’s idealized Chroma.

Beyond that point a Chroma goes from ideal to white, grey or black.  Yeah, that’s why it’s tricky. A color’s saturation has THREE directions it can go.

We often only consider a color going from light to dark, but this is not the case.  It can also go grey.

Tint, Tone, Shade

In order to distinguish the directions a color may go, let’s give them clear terms.  Let’s use the terms: Tint, Tone, and Shade.

Tint – When you add white to a color until it becomes white.

Tone – When you add grey to a color until it becomes grey.

Shade – When you add black to a color until it becomes black.

Tint shade tone

Here’s why this is important.  Most of us, if we even bother to think about saturation at all, tend to think in Tint and Shade.  We pick lighter versions of a color for some things, and we pick darker versions of colors for some things and that’s it.

Doing that is fine. Except when you don’t want to do monochromatic coloring or analogous coloring and want to color a cartoon using most of the colors in the color wheel.(see Lvl 0 Lesson on Coloring for more those topics)

How do you make your colors not clash?

That’s when the grays come in. When working with multiple random hues, you can harmonize them all by toning them.  In other words, giving them all or most of them, a bit of gray tone.

The clashing or colors occur when the intensity of the colors you put together are too saturated.  When you dull them down with gray, you take away the intensity.  Especially if you’re adding the same tone of grey to all the colors.  Since each color has the same color tone in it, they harmonize.

Also realize that you can also tint and shade a toned color for even more variations.

Too Dull

I’m NOT saying that you should always tone down ALL you’re colors with gray, all the time.  Only when they’re clashing. When you need to control their intensity and want them to harmonize more.

Here’s what I mean…


Color saturation example

To the left we have a very simple little drawing of The Black Terror Kid.  I wanted to use a variety of colors for this drawing.

The most saturated colors are on his face, hair and cape. However, I didn’t want the rest of the colors in the drawing to compete with him.  I also wanted to use any colors I wanted.

In order to avoid having the colors look garish while still having them feel unified, I toned down most of the colors around him.

Below are some hue and saturation bars of some of the colors in the drawing.

The farther up the the right on the bar you get the higher the saturation.

The higher to the top left, the higher the tint.

The further down you go on the right the darker the shade.

The further left and down you go, the more extreme the tone.

Color Saturation Floor

The floor is the most extreme example.  Notice where the circle is.  It’s furthers to the left, closer to gray.  It’s a combination of tone and tint.

It’s a very grey brown.




Color saturation Door

The door is the second most extreme example. It’s also tinted and it’s closest to the left gray toned area.  Notice how far away from the saturated areas on the right it is.





Color Saturation wall

The blue wall is much higher up.  It’s still toned, closer to gray, but it’s a much lighter gray.  It’s also a very tinted version of blue.





Color Saturation inside

The area behind The Black Terror Kid, was tricky.  I wanted something that was bright but not white or yellow.

I chose a green color.  This one is not as gray as the other colors.  If anything, it’s mostly a tinted green.




Color Saturation knob

The yellow doorknobs are also not very gray.  They’re mostly tinted a bit.  However, they work really well with the more toned down, purple door exactly because the purple is toned down.





Granted, many of these colors are analogous to each other, which helps the colors harmonize but not all of them are.

My point is that by toning down most of the colors with gray, it’s much easier to get a variety of different colors to harmonize well together.

Your Turn

Alright, I hope this is clear. However, when it comes to color the best way to understand it is to use it.

Below is a drawing I made for you. You’re going to color it:

Color Exercise

The first thing you need is choose your tools.  I’m giving you only two options: watercolors or a computer program.

You can used a paid program like:

Or a FREE program like:

The reason I’m giving you only these two options is because…

With watercolors:

  1. They’re easily accessible and can be inexpensive.
  2. Depending on how opaque you apply the paint, you can potentially get rich colors with them. This allow you to see right away if your colors are harmonizing or not.
  3. They are very controllable and mixable. Unlike, say markers, watercolors can be mixed easily.  When you mix watercolors with one another, you can get different effects with them.  This allows you to create toned hues.  Which is the purpose of this exercise.
  4. If you get good at coloring with analog paints, coloring digitally is easier to pick up.  This is not the case going from digital to analog.

With computer programs:

  1. You’ll get rich colors. These colors are difficult to ignore. If you put two colors together that don’t work, you’ll know it.
  2. All these programs give you access to a hue and saturation bar. These bars are handy to pick your colors from when learning about using tone. You can deliberately pick colors in the grayer areas of the graph and check your results.
  3. They’re easy to edit.  If you pick a tone that’s not working, you can simply chose a different tone until you find the one that works.
  4. However, if you’ve never used a computer program to color with, and the learning curve is too steep, don’t use a program. Just use watercolors.

Here’s what I want you to do if you chose to use watercolors:

  1. Download the image below by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image. When you do, try to print it small. About 3 or 4 inches wide. (you may need to print a few in case your color experiments go wrong.)
  4. Pick at least two cool colors and two warm colors and color the drawing with your watercolors. Try to harmonize the colors so they don’t clash. Don’t get fancy and try to shade or anything.  Just use flat colors.  If the colors are clashing, try to tone down the seemingly offending color by graying it down. (You may need to start over if this happens.)
  5. Color mixing tip – In order to tone down a color, do NOT mix it with black.  Instead, use it’s compliment (it’s opposite color in the color wheel). When two compliments mix equally they create gray.  If you add a little bit of it’s compliment to a color, it tones it down a little bit but doesn’t turn it completely gray.  This is how you can control the saturation of your colors.

Here’s what I want you to do if your coloring digitally:

  1. Download the image below by right clicking on the image and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Open it in the computer program.
  4. Pick at least two cool colors and two warm colors and color it in whatever method that program allows you to color a drawing. Try to harmonize the colors so they don’t clash. Don’t get fancy and try to shade or anything.  Just use flat colors.  If the colors are clashing, try to tone down the seemingly offending color by graying it down.

Don’t be discouraged in you don’t get it right the first time. This is all about experimentation and what you think looks right or feels right.

Here’s what I mean.  Below is my attempts to get something I liked.  First I picked out two warm colors, red and yellow.  Two cool colors, blue and green (although, I think my green was a tad on the warm side.) and then I just picked violet, which is a bit warm.

Once I did that I started to color:

Color Exercise example 01

My first attempt above, was a bit muddy.  I let the blue be saturated but I toned down everything so much that it looked too gray.  The colors looked dead.

I tried again:

Color Exercise example 02

This time the yellow and green where left more saturated. I also toned and tinted down the violet and red.  A bit too much.  They don’t really even look like separate colors.  Also, since the background is so tinted, the shape colors don’t really pop out.

So I tried again:

Color Exercise example 03

I went back to the darker background but with the more saturated shapes.  This felt right to me.  The red and violet being compliments to green and yellow, help them pop out more but they’re toned down enough so they don’t overwhelm.


Q: I’ve done what you’ve said, I’ve dulled down the colors and messed around as best I could, but the end result is just not right.  The colors are either too muddy, and I want them brighter, but when their brighter they don’t look right together.

Is there anything else I can do?

A: Yes, there is.  It’s actually fairly simple.  You can add a color glaze over all the colors.

With watercolor, you can pick a color, water it down and lightly glaze that color on top of the whole picture.  This instantly harmonizes the colors.

If you’re using a digital program, color a layer one single color, put that layer above the other colors layers of your picture and reduce the opacity to about 1 – 5% or so giving all the colors a glaze.  This should also harmonize the colors.

Pro Tip

Generally speaking, when picking colors, it’s best to pick analogous colors. They’re much easier to harmonize.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning Hue and Saturation questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about Hue and Saturation? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

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