cans of paint

Let’s talk the same color language.


I think that we who write and teach sometimes forget that we need to clarify the meanings of the important words or ideas at the very start of any conversation.

So the communication lines are clear. And defined.

I was talking color schemes with a client recently and a BIG lightbulb went off when I realized that she didn’t know how to define a color scheme and had no idea how to choose one, or why one was important in the design of her room.

That got sorted out, but it reminded me what Donald Miller–marketing Poobah — says.  People in the know talk at a knowledge level of ten, and their prospective students or clients talk at a knowledge level of two or three. The trick to good communication is finding the middle ground.

To get to color schemes, though, there are some terms which need definition.

I am going to assume that this first tenet is true. There is some disagreement about this in the color world, but that doesn’t really change the principal.

1. Every color comes from one of three primary colors, or a combination of those colors — red, yellow and blue.

2. Even white, which is considered an absence of color, comes from one of these three colors in diluted form and therefore has a little bit of residual color — called the undertone.

3. This also applies to very dark colors. One undertone is typically a bit more prevalent. Which is why dark brown can sometimes appear slightly red, or that charcoal may actually have a slightly blue appearance.

4. A paler intensity of a color is called a tint. If the orange is too strong, you may ask the paint guy to tint it a bit. That means make it ‘lighter.’

5. A darker intensity of a color is called a shade. If you want the orange darker, request a darker shade.

6. Colors are made by mixing one with another. If you combine red and yellow, the result is orange. If you use more red in the mix, the orange is a red-orange. If you use more yellow, it is an orange-red. 

The locaton of tetrad colors on a color wheel

7. Colors are arranged on a color wheel so you can see what results if  colors are mixed.

8. If you mix equal parts of colors on opposite sides of the wheel, the result is gray.

Have some fun and get a color wheel at the office supply store, or print one from

Now that we are talking the same language,  the next column will be about what makes a color scheme.


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