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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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
Fine artists apply their paints at different thicknesses and consistencies to get multiple, dimensional effects from one color’s masstone and undertone.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Training. You really can do this! Read these other blog posts and add to your color skill set.
- Color Order Systems are Like…
- Learn How to Use a Paint Color Order System Now
- How To Master Overtones
- Etymology of the Term Overtone
- Color Overtones Review
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.
“A Color Notation” by Albert Henry Munsell