Mixing Colors: What You Need to Know About Tints, Tones, and Shades

Diagram showing tint, tone, and shade with ultramarine blue acrylic paint
Tint, Tone, Shade Diagram with ultramarine blue, titanium white, and carbon black acrylic paint. © Lisa Marder

Simply put, tints, tones, and shades are created by adding white, gray, or black respectively to a hue, thereby affecting its saturation and value.

Hue, saturation, and value are the three main characteristics of color. Hue is the color itself, of which there are 12 on the color wheel (consisting of the three primary, three secondary, and six tertiary colors, which are comprised of equal parts of the primary colors and the secondary colors next to them); saturation is how intense the color is; and value is how light or dark the color is, ranging from the lightest light to the darkest dark. Colors straight from the tube that are very light, such as zinc yellow, have a  "high value," while colors straight from the tube that are very dark, such as ultramarine blue, have a "low value."

Distinction between value and tone

Value includes the extreme range of light and dark of a hue, with black at one extreme and white at the other, and includes the pure hue within the spectrum. Tone is the hue always mixed with gray (black and white, or a gray made from complements) to create different values. 

It is important to understand hue, saturation, and value and tint, tone, and shade in order to create the illusion of depth, space, and three-dimensional form, to communicate the message you as an artist want to communicate ​and to more easily mix the colors you want. 


A tint is created when you add white to a color and lighten it. It is also sometimes called a pastel color. Tints can range from nearly the full saturation of the hue to practically white. Sometimes artists add a small bit of white to a color to increase its opacity and covering strength. 

You can add white to any of the twelve hues of the color wheel or you can mix any of the twelve hues of the color wheel together to make any other hue and create tints of that hue by adding white in whatever amount is desired.  

Tinting a color also desaturates the hue, making it less intense. Red when tinted becomes pink. Blue when tinted becomes "baby blue." Tints, or pastels, are often thought of as calmer and quieter colors and are often used for newborn apparel and accessories. 

Remember that when mixing paint you always add a tiny bit of the darker pigment to the lighter pigment, increasing the amount of the darker pigment slightly until you get the desired color or value. Because the darker pigment will quickly overpower the lighter pigment, if you add the lighter color to the darker color you may end up with a lot more paint than you know what to do with before you get the exact color you are trying to mix. 

Different whites have different tinting strengths (the ability of a color to alter another one when mixed with it), and the exact color white that you choose to mix with your original color will affect the color of the tint. Titanium white is the most opaque white and therefore has the greatest tinting strength. Zinc white is a very transparent white and has a low tinting strength. Warm white is titanium-zinc mixed with a little bit of yellow and orange pigment and so will give a warmer tint to a color than will the previously mentioned whites. 


A tone is created when you add both white and black (which is gray), to a color and tone it down, or desaturate it. 

You might see elsewhere the words tone and value used interchangeably, expressing the range of lights and darks in a painting or drawing, as in "tonal range" or "tonal value" but for the purposes of understanding tints, tones, and shades in painting we will stick to the definition of tone as adding gray to a color. 

Most colors that we see in our daily environment have been toned down, or grayed down, to some extent. They are desaturated colors. It would be jarring and overpowering to our visual senses to be bombarded by colors at full saturation all the time.  Tones bring complexity and subtlety to color and make pure, saturated color that much more of a visual statement when it is used.

Because tones are more subtle they are also easier to combine with other colors in pleasing ways. Tones can either be lighter or darker than the original hue, depending on the proportions of black, white, and the original hue used.  


A shade is created when you add black to a color and darken it. 

Just as with tints, you can add black to any of the twelve hues of the color wheel or to any combination of hues of the color wheel to create shades of that hue by adding various amounts of black. Shades can range from a barely shaded pure hue to a deep black color that is in the color family of the original hue.

Many artists shy away from using black, beginning with the Impressionists, but used appropriately black can be very effective. 

You can also create your own chromatic blacks, avoiding the use of black from a tube altogether. A chromatic black, or black made by mixing other colors together, can generally be made by mixing together the darkest hues of complementary colors. This will produce a rich deep dark color that is very close to black. There are also other combinations that will give you a nice dark color and it is worth experimenting to find what works for you. 

To determine the color bias of your chromatic black (what color your black is leaning toward), tint it with a bit of white. This will help you to see the underlying hue. You can also create gray tones from your chromatic blacks and white.