Color Intensity Basics: What You Need to Know

Color Intensity Basics: What You Need to Know

If you take many art courses or watch many art videos, you’ll hear the phrase “color intensity.” Sometimes, the teacher or speaker explains the color intensity basics, but most of the time it’s assumed you know what color intensity is.

How many artists really know what color intensity is? For most of my art life, I didn’t know or care. I just wanted to draw and paint horses. Maybe that describes you, too. You just want to make art.

But this is about more than just understanding the art language. This is about getting the most out of your colored pencils. And since I wrestled with this concept so long, I want to present in clear and easy-to-follow terms exactly what color intensity is and why it’s important.

Color Intensity Basics

Let me begin by telling you what color intensity is not.

It’s not value.

Lets start with these two colors. The top color is Warm Grey I. The bottom color is Light Cadmium Yellow. Both are Faber-Castell Polychromos.

At a glance, it might look like they represent two different values. But do they really?

Color intensity is not the same as color value.

Here are the two colors converted to grayscale. This is the same image as above. I simply removed all the color. Now they look the same, don’t they?

Yet, one of them is intense and the other is not. Can you guess which is which?

It’s not Hue

When you hear artists talking about hue, they’re talking about the color families, not specific colors. Brown is a hue (color family.) Within that family, you have all the various specific colors. Burnt Umber, Light Umber, Dark Brown, Terra Cotta, Burnt Sienna and so on if you use Prismacolor pencils.

Each color family contains bright and dull colors; colors that are intense and colors that are not.

So what is color intensity?

Color intensity refers to the brightness or dullness of a color. The brighter a color is, the more intense it’s said to be. Using our samples of yellow and gray, it’s easy to see that the yellow is more intense than the gray.

Color intensity is not the same thing as value.

100% intensity is a color—any color—without any white or black mixed in.

The intensity of a color can also be affected by adding other colors to the original color.

If, for example, I put down a nice, even layer of yellow on a piece of white paper so that no paper showed through, the yellow would be pure yellow. It would be the most intense it’s capable of being.

If I then layered blue over the yellow, the yellow becomes duller—or less intense. Even if the layer of blue was very thin and transparent, it tones down the intensity of the yellow.

Yes, it’s true that blue glazed over yellow creates green, but that green is less intense than pure green would be.

The same is true when you mix any two colors together. The original color is never as intense as the brightest original color.

In each of the three samples below, the teal color is less intense after I layered another color over it. Even light colors such as white and very light blue.

Adding any color to another color reduces the intensity of the original color.

Why is All of This Important?

Now that you know what color intensity is, you might be asking what difference it makes. Does color intensity really have all that much to do with making art?

Yes! Understanding color intensity and how to use it can make a huge difference in your art.

Changes in Color Intensity Indicate Distance

When you look at an object up close, you see the colors of the object pretty much the way they are. Lighting affects the way colors look, of course, but there should be no other distortions.

View the same object from a little distance, and the way you see the colors changes a little bit. View that object from a long distance, and the colors look a lot different. They lose some of the brightness (intensity) you saw from up close.

The trees in the background are far less intense than the trees in the foreground, so they look much farther away.

If you want to create the illusion of distance in your artwork, reduce the intensity of the colors you use by adding white, gray, or a complementary color.

Changes in Intensity of Color to Indicate Shadow

Color intensity can also indicate shadow. Reducing the intensity of a color is effective in creating shadows and middle values.

One of the best ways to dull down colors to create middle values is by glazing a complementary color over the original color. Each of these three ornaments has intense original colors: Blue, red and yellow. The middle values and shadows are those same colors dulled down by adding other colors to the original color.

Of course, black is also acceptable, but must be used carefully. Combining black and some colors produces muddy colors or odd colors. Using black to add middle values to the yellow ornament above produces an dull olive green color. Not very pleasing!

And of course, you run the risk of getting too dark if you rely on black too much.

How to Reduce Color Intensity

There are several ways to make colors look duller.

Use similar colors that are less intense. For example, if you use a bright yellow in the foreground, choose a duller shade of yellow in the middle ground.

Mix white or gray with the colors to make them look less intense. You have far more flexibility and an endless range of intensities when you mix white or gray with the original color.

Add a complementary color to reduce intensity. This is especially effective if you also need to change the color a little bit. Yellow to green, for example.

Can I Make a Color Look Brighter?


The easiest way is to layer the color until no paper shows through the color. That way, the color of the paper isn’t directly affecting the brightness of the color.

Another way to make colors look brighter is by surrounding them them less intense colors. Yellow is a pretty intense color all by itself. To make it look even brighter, surround it with duller colors.

Want more than Color Intensity Basics?

Amy Lindenberger provides a much more in-depth look at color intensity basics and other topics in her book, Colors – A Workbook. I’ve purchased this book and drawn the exercises, and learned a lot about despite having been an artist for years. If you would like more information on this topic, get Amy’s book. You won’t be sorry.

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  1. Gail Jones

    Thank you for the great article. I think sometimes people assume with beginners that maybe they know more then they do. As a beginner not that long ago, I had gaps in my knowledge. Thank you for giving some basic information here. Am sure it will be helpful.

    1. Gail,

      Thank you for the comment and you’re welcome.

      The problem I run into is that it’s been so long since I was a beginner that I often forget the things I struggled with when I was getting started. Revisiting the basics is vital to the learning process!

  2. Hi Carrie. When i saw the topic of this post, i didn’t think iknew what you were talking about. Then it started coming back to me as i read!
    The most striking part to me, though, was your little landscape. We’re always told that warm colors advance, cool colors recede, yet you’ve perfectly demonstrated the effect of intensity on the advance/recede phenomenon.Thank you!

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