Color Words to Know: From Basic to Beautiful

By , Staff Writer
color words labeled over colored chalk
    color words labeled over colored chalk
    MirageC / Moment / Getty Images
    Used under Getty Images license

Color is a topic that seems simple at first glance but is actually quite complex. To understand more about color and how to talk about it, the best place to start is with the names of the most basic colors and how to categorize them. From there, mastering color words requires thinking about color in different ways. Build your vocabulary of color words by discovering terms for various color properties and variations, as well as lovely names for many beautiful colors.

Basic Color Words List

The most basic color words include the primary, secondary and tertiary colors.

Primary Colors

Primary colors are the basic colors that can be mixed together to form all of the other colors. There are three primary colors:

  • red
  • yellow
  • blue

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are the ones that are created when two secondary colors are mixed with each other. There are three secondary colors:

  • orange (a mixture of yellow and red)
  • green (a mixture of yellow and blue)
  • violet/purple (a mixture of blue and red)

Tertiary Colors

The tertiary colors are created by combining equivalent parts of a primary color and a secondary color. There are six tertiary colors:

  • red-orange
  • yellow-orange
  • yellow-green
  • blue-green
  • blue-violet
  • red-violet

Neutral Colors

There are three neutral colors:

  • black
  • white
  • gray

Color Properties

There are a number of different color properties.

  • warm - red, orange, yellow, and their variations
  • cool - blue, green, violet (purple), and their variations
  • saturation - the degree of intensity of a color
  • saturated - very intense color
  • desaturated - dulled color; not intense
  • bright - high light intensity
  • dark - low light intensity
  • monochrome - a single color, including variations
color theory chart with color models
    color theory chart showing color models
    oleksii arseniuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

Color Variations

Of course, there are many color variations beyond primary, secondary, tertiary, and neutral colors. Variations are determined based on combining the most basic types of colors to form new types.

  • hue - pure color, with no neutral tones added (The primary, secondary and tertiary colors are hues.)
  • shade - add black to a color to darken it (Brown is a shade created by combining orange and black or red, yellow and black.)
  • tint - adding white to lighten it (Pink is a tint of red; light blue is a tint of darker blue.)
  • tone - adding gray to reduce its intensity (Gray is used to reduce the intensity of any color. This is referred to as "toning down" a color.)

Beautiful Color Words

Of course, there are many lovely and unique colors beyond the most basic primary, secondary, tertiary, and neutral colors, made possible through unique variations. Some of the most interesting and unique colors are described by words that are beautiful in their own right.

  • alabaster - an almost translucent shade of white color
  • amber - richly beautiful color between brown and yellow
  • azure - a radiant, bright blue
  • celadon - an elegant, pastel green
  • cerise - deep, bright and vibrant pink
  • cerulean - a beautiful shade of light blue
  • chartreuse - a muted, greenish-yellow color
  • claret - a deep, rich, dark red
  • ecru - a beige shade with just a tiny tinge of brown
  • mauve - a pale purple with a hint of pinkish undertone
  • parchment - off-white shade with a slightly yellowish tinge
  • saffron - a brilliant yellow shade with a hint of orange
  • sepia - a reddish-brown color
  • turquoise - a greenish-blue color
  • vermilion - a deep scarlet red

Color Models/Codes

Color models are also referred to as color codes or color spaces. These acronyms are used to describe specifics of a precise color. A color model can specify how basic or neutral colors are combined to make specific variations or to refer to other characteristics of color. Examples include:

  • CMYK - The CMYK color represents a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (The "k" stands for black because "b" represents blue.)
  • RGB - The RGB color model represents a combination of red, green and blue.
  • HSB - The HSB color model is a variation of RGB, that refers to the specific hue, saturation and brightness of colors.
  • grayscale - The term grayscale refers to the range of neutral colors (white, gray and black) present in a black and white visual.

Creative Ways to Describe Color

Of course, beyond looking at words specific to color (or is it colour?) itself, it's often important to describe the appearance of color, such as how beautiful (or not) a color is and what meaning it may convey. For ideas on descriptive terminology, explore this list of words to describe color. To put your new knowledge of words to practical use, expand your horizons even further by exploring some descriptive words to critique art.