Color Undertones – An Informed Perspective (updated 02/2017)

I’m aware that matching undertones is a popular color theory right now but I’d caution jumping on that bandwagon too quickly. Because undertones are subjective aspects of color, not measurable attributes and that’s a problem. You won’t find color undertones referenced in professional color systems and that should cause you to at least question any color design approach hinged on undertones.

Informed by classic color order systems, a color science called colorimetry, and experience my color point of view is different. And I find that somewhat amusing because the color science and international color systems that are the foundation of my expertise have been around for a really long time. Right under everyone’s nose for decades yet few have taken notice – or advantage.

Funcolors' Perspective on Undertone

The intent of this blog post is to inspire a broader understanding of how color works. At the heart of how color works, the most basic thing that everyone needs to understand is every color belongs to a hue family. It’s easy to determine a color’s hue family – it’s not hidden or under anything – it comes straight from a color’s DNA. Hue family and undertones are distinctly different so keep reading.

Control

“It may sound strange to say that color has three dimensions, but it is easily proved by the fact that each of them can be measured.” ~Albert Henry Munsell

If it is not measured, it cannot be controlled.

Measurable attributes of color

Unlike hue family, color undertones are not a measured attribute of color. Not good because if it’s not measured, then you can’t plot it. If you can’t plot it, it can’t be organized. If it can’t be organized, it is not consistently duplicatable. If it is not duplicatable, then it’s randomly subjective. Subjectivity, as it pertains to color, is emotional based on individual experience rather than fact. Color is naturally subjective. But what if I told you there was a way to make it objective?

subjectivity as it pertains to color is emotional

When it comes to organizing color, consistency and duplicability are nonnegotiable and the basis of organization cannot be individually subjective. It’s not just about organizing, it’s also about figuring out what colors go together – color schemes, color harmonies.

Understanding hue families and how they go together is the secret to creating a color harmony. Knowing how to objectively organize color into hue families will take you beyond trying to eyeball undertones and match them up. Because the most powerful tool for figuring out what colors go together is a color wheel and color wheels are constructed using hue families.

Color Masstone

All colors are experienced as belonging to one of four perceptual categories (reds, greens, blues, and yellows), or combinations thereof.

Masstone means the medium is so concentrated that no light can get through and reflect off the substrate below. You sense masstone when the medium is in globs, high concentrations, full strength, undiluted or of a generous thickness. Using printer’s ink as an example, cyan ink has a dark blue masstone and magenta ink has a bright red masstone. The masstone of printer’s ink is so significant that magenta is also called process red; cyan is called process blue and yellow, process yellow.

In terms of paint, masstone answers the question, “What hue immediately comes to mind when you look in the freshly opened can or squeeze paint directly from the tube?” Masstone synonyms: top tone, mass color, body-color.

Munsell Hue Families

Munsell Hue Families

NCS Hue Families

NCS Hue Families

Or combinations thereof” is very important because that means more than just the four basic perceptual categories of reds, greens, blues, and yellows. This is one reason why there are different color wheels – the more hue families you have in which to categorize color, the easier it is to get color to do what you want it to do. This is why different color systems identify different hue families. Munsell and NCS, for example, identify core hue families differently.

Color Undertones

What is color undertone anyway? Undertone is the color revealed when a medium, like artist’s paints or printer’s ink, is spread thinly so light filters all the way to the substrate and bounces back up through the thin film of color. Depending on the medium, some colors are consistent masstone through undertone. Some colors are unpredictable and show hue shifts when moving from concentrated masstone to shear color undertones. Some opaque mediums are capable of showing only masstone.

In a figurative way, undertone means “a quality, characteristic, etc., that is present but not clear or obvious.”

Example of Color Undertone

Alternatively, you could say that some colors have the same undertone and masstone. Take paint for example. Paint can be spread anywhere from globby thick to uber thin. Spreading paint thinly reveals color undertone (if there is one).

Architectural Coatings Differ from Fine Arts, Graphic Design

Example of Color Undertone

Fine artists apply their paints at different thicknesses and consistencies to get multiple, dimensional effects from one color’s masstone and undertone.

Example of Color Undertones

Graphic designers kind of do the same thing but their medium is digital and they use multiple layers of color and adjust opacity and fill rates to mimic color undertones and create different effects.

Aura-spread-rate

In architectural paints, manufacturer’s Technical Data Sheets state recommended film thickness for their products. It is also known as spread rate. Consistent application is a professional standard and the goal is to spread the paint at one even thickness across the entire surface. Unlike fine arts and graphic design, at no point is an architectural coating manipulated to leverage color undertones.

Architectural coatings, with the exception of certain decorative finishes, do not utilize color undertones.

Can we imagine musical tones called, lark, canary, cockatoo, crow, cat, dog, or mouse, because they bear some distant resemblance to the cries of those animals? Color needs a system. ~ Albert Henry Munsell

Hue Families

Hue families are organized into order systems. Every color can be organized into a hue family and thus ordered into a system. A logical order system is critical when dealing with thousands of colors, products, and materials.

Benjamin Moore Hue Families

Chromatic or saturated colors are close to pure colors and they are easy to assign to hue families like red, blue, green, and yellow.

Nonchromatics and pastel colors like pink and brown are reasonably easy to match up to a hue family. Pink’s hue parent is red. Brown is dark orange and belongs to the orange family.

Muted, desaturated, near neutrals, chromatic grays – these colors are difficult to link to a hue family because they are less colorful. If you cannot easily see and identify the color, then it is hard to assign it to a hue family.

However, just because it is not easy to identify the color does not mean it is not there; does not mean it is hidden; does not mean it is under anything. It just means you do not know what it is.  So, how do you find a color’s hue bias? If you are using a color system, the notation will include the hue family.  Easy.  Done. If, however, you are winging it sans notations, then you ask the question, “Compared to what?”

Compared to What

“Compared to what?” is THE most important question when it comes to all things color.

Hue-parents

If you don’t know how to use spectral data to ascertain a color’s hue family, value, and chroma, you can discern what hue family a color belongs to by comparing to hue family parents. Compare the uncategorized color to a big chip of red, blue, green, yellow, etc. and the hue family should be obvious. Color responds to its context. Comparing one color to another is basic context.

Chip off the old block

It is no different from human kids and parents. See a kid running around at the playground and he looks like any other kid. Put him in context with his family and suddenly you are able to recognize similar features and compare attributes, and it quickly becomes apparent that junior is a chip off the old block.

Same thing happens with color. Through the process of comparison, you will see the hue family to which a color belongs.

With that said, I bet you know the answer more often than you give yourself credit. Because the aspect, or characteristic, that is referred to as an “undertone” is in actuality the hue bias. It is simply the hue family and nothing more. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.  Trust your color sensibilities.

ducks-in-a-row

I am out of old-timey idioms so let’s wrap this up.

Bringing it Together

  • The reason why you want to identify hue bias and subsequently hue family is so you can plot the color on a wheel. Whatever kind of color wheel (or atlas) you want to use.
  • You want to plot color on a wheel according to its hue family because color wheels demonstrate relationships.
  • Color harmony is derived from color relationships.
  • Harmonious colors make up pleasing color schemes.
  • You want harmonious color combinations and schemes.

Ultimately, the goal of color design is pleasing color schemes and relationships. You reach that goal by relying on non-subjective systems that measures, plots, and organizes so color is consistently reproducible, repeatable, and most importantly controllable.

Munsell Quote

Understanding ordered color systems puts you in control of color as a whole: attributes, aspects, characteristics, relationships, and harmony.
Classically ordered color is found across every industry you can possibly name, paint, tile, carpet, flooring – it is literally everywhere. If you’d like to learn more about color systems and how you can leverage hue families to get color to do what you want it to do, visit Camp Chroma Online Color TrainingYou really can do this! Read these other blog posts and add to your color skill set.

  1. Color Order Systems are Like…
  2. Learn How to Use a Paint Color Order System Now
  3. How To Master Overtones
  4. Etymology of the Term Overtone
  5. Color Overtones Review

Glossary

Attribute (n): a construct whereby objects/individuals can be distinguished.

Aspect (n): appearance to the eye or mind; look: the physical aspect of the country.

Characteristic (n): distinguishing feature or quality.

Hue Bias (n):  color bias toward one side or another; clockwise or counterclockwise on a color wheel

Subjective (adj): based on somebody’s opinions or feelings rather than on facts or evidence.

Sources:

dictionary.com

thefreedictionary.com

mind.duke.edu/files/sites/purves/pub/3551315808.pdf

ncscolorusa.com

“A Color Notation” by Albert Henry Munsell

  • John the Math Guy

    Interesting blog, Lori. I never understood what an undertone is and why it is important.

    But, as a color scientist and mathematician, I would have to disagree about whether it can be measured. Can’t you just measure the CIELAB value and determine the hue from that? Or are you saying that “you can only measure the undertone if the hue of a thin layer is a different hue than the masstone”?

    Incidentally, printing inks, particularly cyan and magenta, have undertones. When printing we generally apply a thin enough layer of ink so that we are printing with the undertone and not the masstone. The masstone of cyan ink is blue, and the masstone of magenta is red.

    For ink, the color of the range from undertone to masstone (I call it the trajectory through color space) can readily be predicted from the spectrum using Beer’s law. I suspect that paint would require a slightly different formula, but it certainly could be predicted.

    I have a blog post on this “Why does my cyan have the blues?”
    http://johnthemathguy.blogspot.com/2012/09/why-does-my-cyan-have-blues.html

    • funcolors

      Hi John,

      Thanks so much for the great comment – much appreciated. Interestingly, other color scientists I know echoed your thoughts.

      I think what’s key is layers. If you can work in layers whether it’s fine arts, graphic digital or print design or anything else, really, then there is more range to manipulate masstone and undertone. No layers, then the question is how does one leverage an undertone if there is one.

  • marcie cooperman

    Wonderful blog, Lori. It’s true that you can figure out what hue those nasty chromatic grays et al are by comparing them – specifically to achromatic grays. The hue usually stands out. Same goes for tints and shades, of course.

    • funcolors

      Hey, Marcie. Nice to see you here.

      Yes, agreed, a neutral gray swatch can come in handy. In a perfect world a perfectly neutral gray swatch would be handed out at the door of every paint store, but paint world is far from a perfect color world.

      Unlike other disciplines like photography or graphic design, paint world is typically lacking in ‘handy’ and meaningful color tools. The eBook I wrote includes color strategies for how to survive the paint store experience as well as how to use whatever is available palette to palette in any material, not just paint. Comparing to hue parents is a ‘that which is like unto itself is drawn’ construct.

      Hope you’re ready for upcoming semesters and that your book is doing well. If anyone would like to check out Marcie’s book it’s on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Color-How-Use-Marcie-Cooperman/dp/0135120780

  • EJ

    How coud this relate to skin undertones for determining the best colors for a person to wear, based on their skin tone? Any ideas?

    • funcolors

      Hi EJ,

      Thank you for your comment. Consistency of material means no layers. No
      layers of varied viscosity or translucency = no undertones. That is the
      super succinct way to sum up my point of view on undertones.

      Skin tone is very different from, say, a solid surface counter top. The counter top is a consistent, solid surface with no variation in depth or translucency. Unlike skin, where there are some areas on the body that are thinner and more translucent than others. And it’s these areas (from what I understand) that personal color analysts look to in order to see very real and viable skin undertones.

      Personal color analysis knows how to work the undertone angle correctly.