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What Is the Difference Between Tints, Shades, Hues, and Tones?

The mix-up among tint, shade, hue, and tone is understandable since they’re all related to color theory and refer to similar concepts within design. That’s where those slight similarities end, though.

Marc Schenker April 14, 2022 · 13 min read

The difference between tints and shades can be confusing even for graphic designers with years of experience. Throw hue and tone into the mix, too, and you’re left with four, distinct color terms that everyone uses, yet not everyone understands.

The mix-up among tint, shade, hue, and tone is understandable since they’re all related to color theory and refer to similar concepts within design. That’s where those slight similarities end, though.
To understand the very real difference between tints and shades, you first have to realize that it involves neutral colors and their effect on any color. On the other hand, a hue is what we call a pure pigment or color that hasn’t been touched by whites or blacks. A tone is the result of mixtures involving color and gray or by using color with tint and shade.

Designers who want to become experts in color theory should read further for a comprehensive primer into hues, tints, tones, and shades.

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The Importance of Color Theory to Graphic Design

One of the most fundamental pieces of knowhow that will help you get far in your career as a graphic designer is understanding color theory inside and out. Having a grasp of this is the basis of stellar, eye-catching design and powerful, visual communication.

Being confident in color theory will help you master:

  • Color contrast
  • Color combinations
  • All-around good composition

Think of a designer who’s working on a visual-branding project and has to emphasize certain parts of their composition. They must know how to apply and mix color, so that they can either lighten or darken specific areas in their frame. This is absolutely critical to getting an ad’s message across properly. Otherwise, the impact of the ad is wasted, and the messaging is overlooked.

Image Credit: Sharon Pittaway

Now that we’ve laid out why you need to become proficient in color theory, let’s take a deep look at tint, shade, hue, and tone to clarify their important differences.

Defining Tint vs. Shade, Hue, and Tone

As you’ll see, each term is distinct and represents a unique way to work with colors.


The purpose of a tint is to lessen the darkness of a color. Therefore, a tint is achieved by mixing a pure color (or any combination of pure colors) with only white. For instance, if you mix the pure pigment blue with white, you’ll naturally get a softer, light blue, which is a tint of blue.

It’s vital to remember that adding white to any pure color to lighten it does not also brighten it. Technically, though the tint may now look brighter than the pure, starting color, it actually isn’t. A helpful way to process this relationship is to think of a tint as the paler version of the same color.

Even just a tiny amount of white can turn a pure color into a tint. This means that even one tint of any color can feature a range of lightness. For example, a small amount of white added to blue will turn the color into one that’s only a bit lighter than the pure blue you started out with. On the opposite end of the spectrum, adding a lot of white to pure blue will turn it into an almost all-white tint that hardly features any of the starting color anymore.
Finally, a true tint will have absolutely no traces of gray in it.

Here are some digital-asset examples of tints:

Callout: Remember that tint is the hue plus white to lighten a color.


Think of tint vs. shade as the difference between lightness and darkness — in a way. While it’s true that a shade will have just black mixed in with a pure color or a combination of colors, a shade impacts the relative lightness of the ensuing color mixture. When you mix only black with a pure color, you’ll naturally increase the darkness of the starting color. A shade will have absolutely no gray or white in it.

Again, as with a tint, a shade is the same version of the pure, starting color, except that it’s a darker version. Also, the same rules apply with regard to the amount of the neutral color added. When you add a tiny amount of black to a pure color, you’ll turn it into just a slightly darker version of the original. When you add a lot of black to the starting color, you’ll produce a shade that’s almost completely black, with barely any of the pure, starting color mixed in or visible.

The Impressionists were a notable group of artists who didn’t have much use for black in their visual art, but used appropriately, black can add extra, interesting elements to your designs.

Check out these digital-asset examples of shades:

Callout: Remember that shade is the hue plus black to darken a color.


The hue is what we call in color theory a pure pigment. This means that it’s a pure color without the addition of any tint or shade (without any white or black pigment). Like the tint vs. shade consideration, the hue is one of the major properties of color theory.

Hue is also a more complicated concept. It’s always viewed in the context of red, green, blue or yellow. Put another way, hue is the degree to which visual stimulus can be regarded as either similar or dissimilar to stimulus that’s colored red, green, blue, or yellow.

Neutral colors (whites, grays, blacks) are never called hues. That’s because a hue is always a reference to the preeminent color family of any specific color that’s being viewed.

Hue is also the starting point of the color that our eyes see. There are six primary and secondary colors, of which hue is one. This means that the hue is the underlying base color of any mixture you’ll ever see.

The primary colors are:

  • Yellow
  • Red
  • Blue

The secondary colors are:

  • Orange
  • Purple
  • Green

If we look at the color wheel in terms of familial relationships, the primary colors are the parents, from which all colors and color combinations come, while the secondary colors are their children. There are also the tertiary colors (a mixture of one primary color plus its closest secondary color on the color wheel), which we may think of as the grandchildren of the primary colors.

Here’s an interesting factoid about how we perceive the hue of any color: we first process hues in the portion of our brains called globs, which are in the extended V4 complex.

Familiarize yourself with these examples of hues in design:

Callout: Remember that hue is the pure color of a pigment.


The last piece of the tint, shade, hue, and tone relationship, a tone is defined as any hue or mixture of pure pigments that only has gray added. You should also know that, in this context, gray is completely neutral, which means there are no other colors in the gray besides white and black.

Neutral gray will always reduce the intensity of a color; this applies whether the gray is light or dark. It’s always a good idea to be conservative in adding your gray to other colors: if you add excessive gray to a color, it’s next to impossible to bring up the brilliance of the color again.

To the human eye, toned pigments are considered more visually pleasing and even sophisticated because they’re not as loud as vivid, vibrant colors. Colors that are very bright are typically seen as being juvenile.

Look at the environment around you. This can be in real-life, in a magazine, or on your computer screen. Many of the colors with which you interact have been toned down from their original, pure color. The degree of tone will always vary, but almost no color you’ll see exists in its pure pigment original form.

Here are some stellar examples of tones in graphic design:

Callout: Remember that tone is the hue plus neutral gray to lessen the intensity of a color.

The Fundamentals Behind Tints, Shades, Hues, and Tones

With all the information you now have about tints, shades, hues, and tones, you still need to be able to apply it when you’re working with colors on your graphic design projects. That’s why we want to take you through a primer of the color wheel and then use that information to show you how to apply tint and shade.

The Color Wheel

The color wheel is your basis for selecting the appropriate color palette for any design project. Here are the basics you need to understand.

The color wheel consists of 12 hues that symbolize the relationships between colors, which have been developed and refined for centuries. It consists of:

  • Primary colors (yellow, red and blue)
  • Secondary colors obtained by mixing together the primary colors (orange, purple and green)
  • Tertiary colors (colors obtained by mixing together the primary and secondary colors)

Your next step is to analyze the specific relationships of these colors on the wheel to inform your decision-making about which colors work effectively in your designs.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are defined as colors (and their tints) and their polar opposites on the color wheel. This relationship creates the largest amount of contrast in design.

Image Credit: Malte Bickel

Examples of complementary colors, according to the traditional color model, include:

  • Red and green
  • Blue and orange
  • Yellow and purple

Due to the high level of contrast with these pairings, you’re advised to be conservative in how you use them. For the most part, use just one color in these pairings as the dominant one, and use its polar-opposite counterpart as only an accent—so the contrast doesn’t become too aggressive.

Analogous Colors

Think of this color relationship as one main color that’s coupled with the two colors that are right next to it on the color wheel. All the colors in this relationship sit next to each other on the wheel.

Examples of analogous colors include:

  • Green, yellow and yellow-green
  • Red, orange, and red-orange
  • Blue, violet, and blue-violet

There are two options here on how to use this relationship:

A three-color scheme – One main color and two colors on either side of it
A five-color scheme – One main color, two colors that are right next to it on either side, and two additional colors that are next to the two outside colors

Image Credit: Raynaldy Dachlan

Understanding what to do with analogous colors is significant as you consider tint vs. shade, hue, tone, and picking colors effectively.

Analogous colors are typically utilized in designs that feature less contrast. This is due to their nature of not possessing much contrast to begin with.

Triadic Colors

As their name implies, triadic colors are based on three colors that are equally spaced out on the color wheel.
Examples of triadic colors are:

  • Red, blue, and yellow
  • Orange, purple, and green

The most important aspect of triadic colors—when you’re evaluating tint vs. shade, hue and tone considerations—is their high degree of color contrast. However, the tone remains the same.

Image Credit: Robert Katzki

As always, when working with high-contrast colors in your design, you only want to use one of them significantly while the others are used as accents or with softer tints. Using this technique ensures that your design isn’t too loud.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic colors are absorbing because you’re able to design a color combination that relies on different tints, shades, and tones of one hue. The thing with a monochrome scheme is that it can seem duller compared to the other color relationships (from the lack of color contrast), yet, on the upside, it can look quite sophisticated and clean.

Image Credit: Fabian Fauth

Just remember that monochromatic color schemes don’t really pop out at your audience, so you wouldn’t want to use this relationship when, say, you’re creating infographics, charts or graphs that have to quickly highlight important stats.

Split-Complementary Colors

Finally, we have split-complementary colors. This relationship occurs with one main color, its complement, and the two colors right beside the complement. A more complex color scheme, the split-complementary scheme gives you contrast, but also a subtler palette than using complementary colors.

Image Credit: David Pisnoy

One of the challenges with this scheme is the difficulty in balancing it well, due to the fact that all involved colors are contrasting. Since this is the most complex relationship, don’t be surprised if you have to experiment to a lengthier degree until you find what works.

Practical Uses of Tints and Shades

Armed with all this know-how about the color wheel and color theory, you’re more empowered than ever to start working with tint and shade in a variety of visually appealing methods. As you’ll see, it’s not really about tint vs. shade, but more about using both at the right moments to make your designs more effective than ever before.

Use More Degrees of Tint and Shade

Too many graphic designers get stuck in the mindset of working with only one tint or shade of a color at a time. We’re telling you to think outside this narrow-minded box and use a few tints and shades of a color simultaneously.

For instance, if you’re using yellow, use both tints like lemon chiffon and cream to balance with the color on the opposite side of the color wheel: purple.

Create Geometric Shapes With Tint and Shade

One of the more creative uses of tint and shade is to form shapes in design. Instead of just thinking about tint vs. shade as elements of color, start thinking about them as shapes.

Based on how much you lighten or darken various colors in the same composition, you can create aesthetic, well-defined forms that offer visual texture.

Keep Things Minimalist

Minimalism works to great effect in almost everything you can do as a graphic designer. This also extends to your projects involving tint vs. shade.

The monochromatic color scheme discussed earlier is ideal for an approach like this. Since you’re just working with one color, you can get quite experimental with how far you tint or shade that one hue to affect your design. If you do this right, you can arrive at a clean and modern style that will impress.

Add Some Color Gradients

Color gradients are transitions that slowly but surely blend from one color into another or even multiple colors. This provides you with the freedom and opportunity for a lot of vividness in your compositions.

With the tint and shade of different colors, you can go quite far in applying a broad range of color to your works. The best part is that you can work with analogous colors just as well as you can with complementary colors since gradients are best used subtly and transition gradually.

Working With Color by Leveraging Technique

It’s not so much tint vs. shade as it is tint and shade working together. Both color mixtures are the starting point for the knowhow behind versatile techniques that you can apply to your project’s color selection and combinations to get the best outcomes.

Now that you understand the distinctions between tints, shades, hues, and tones, you’ll be able to unlock massive potential in everything from visual communication to branding projects.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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