"We see nothing truly until we understand it"~ John Constable


Intensity -
the brightness or dullness of color.




The World of Color



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“He who wishes to become a master of color must see, feel, and experience each individual color in its endless combinations with all other colors.” Johannes Itten, 1888-1967

What is meant by the word Intensity?


Intensity is a term used to describe the brightness or dullness of a color. Artists describe the attributes of color in a painting based on the amount of light that an object receives. Look closely at the diagram above and you will notice that the colors become dull as they move into the center of the circle. These colors have reduced intensity compared to the colors on the outer rings of the circle used in this example. Intensity is also a term used to measure and describe one of the three properties of color.

Intensity - Dull versus Bright



dull blues

Here we see examples of a 'toned' or 'dull' blue Hue. This example would be called a low intensity blue. In the fruit photograph above, the fruit would be painted with colors of both low intensity(dull) and greater intensity (bright).

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Ways to control intensity...


Intensity can mean Chroma, Saturation, Bright, Dull...

All of the above words describe the property of intensity as it relates to color. These are also words that artists and colorists use when describing the saturation of color.  As stated above, intensity refers to the brightness or dullness of a color.  Bright, dull, grayed, toned are words used when describing or referring to the intensity of a color.

Artists control the intensity of color to create depth, dimension and interest within a composition. The artist's eye must be trained to see the differences between mixing color for intensity and mixing for value.  Reading information alone will not train the eye to see these differences. Only by mixing and training the eye to read the subtle changes as we adjust colors will we understand how to control color.


In the example above, the eye is drawn to the intensity of the green leaves in the frontal plane of the photograph. If we had to describe these bright green leaves we would call them intense.The objects in the background, by contrast seem to dissolve away because they are all similar in intensity to each other. The bright green leaves in the center of the image attract more attention and create greater contrast. If an artist was painting from this photograph, they could use the bright (intense) green areas as a way to draw attention to these leaves. By comparison, the rest of the composition appears relatively dull.

Below are colors that the artist can add to their mixes to help control intensity 
Earth Color = Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber
Neighboring color on color wheel
Background color
Another duller or brighter color from the same color family

Tips to use when mixing to control the intensity of a color:

  • When mixing to change the intensity, use small portions until desired intensity is achieved.
  • Always keep a touch of the original intensity/color in order to compare how the intensity is changing.
  • Mixing complements together will quickly turn to mud/dull if this happens, add more of the pure/intense color.
  • As colors get darker intensity may be hard to see, if color is lost pure color can be added to bring back some intensity and color.
  • Adding just a touch of background color will tone the color and intensity marrying the colors together.
  • Having a common toner, meaning the same toner in each color will give each color something in common and result in harmony of colors.
  • The same intensity of a color should not be used in the focal area as in the background area the ending result will be a lack of a strong focal area.
  • The value will change depending on the value of the color used to dull or brighten the original intensity.
  • The color family will change or shift to another color family if too much of the alternate color is added.


  • The following painting lesson teachs the artist how to work with intensity. Several elements are based on differences between dull and intense colors. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.


Intensity versus Value...

Both these terms are important for the artist to learn and understand as they provide insight and a way to describe color accurately. Many artists confuse these two terms and think that they are interchangeable which they are not. It is highly recommended that all artists include in depth study of both these properties of color.

Intensity differs from value


Intensity differs from value as these are two different properties of color. One is used to describe the brightness or saturation of a color while the other is used to describe the lightness or darkness of a color. Value is judged on a scale of 1 - 10 with one being the darkest, such as black. White is referred to as a value 10 and being the lightest.

Light against Dark = Value contrast

The light value Magnolia flower sits against a dark value background. The light value color on the left meets the dark value color on the right.


  • The following painting lesson teaches the artist how paint using controlled color intensities. The goal being to create dimension and interest. Several elements are based on differences between warm and cool temperatures and intense and dull colors. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.




Tertiary Colors and Intensity...

Tertiary Colors are found inside the wheel, these are 'toned' colors.

Red and Green sit across the color wheel from each other, they are called complementary colors. When two complementary colors are mixed, the resulting color is 'toned' or less intense. These colors usually sit towards the center of the wheel and are referred to as tertiary colors.


  • The following painting lesson teaches the artist how to paint using tertiary colors. Tertiary colors are used for creating dimension and interest. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.



Atmospheric Perspective and intensity - the secret to creating depth...

Atmospheric Perspective


Atmospheric Perspective is created when dust particles in the air refract light and create color distortion, the result is a 'toned' or quiet color. As you can see in the images above, the colors in the background of the scene are reduced in intensity. They become duller and 'grayer' or may appear more blue as they become less intense. The image on the right, certainly gives us the impression that the scene is further away from us, the degree of 'tone' of the colors describes the distance and creates greater depth.

Atmospheric perspective is an artistic concept that should be given greater study, especially for those artists who wish to paint realistic landscapes. All depth within a landscape or in any topic or subject of 'nature' type compositions demands a strong understanding of this concept.

Atmospheric Perspective

When artists paint landscapes, they consider the effects of distance as well as the degree of light. In order to create the illusion of distance, artists tone their colors, lower the intensity or reduce the saturation. Compare the photograph above with the sample color swatches below to see how the colors have been selected in order to create this effect. Can you see the amount of gray (black and white) present in these colors?

toned greens


Atmospheric Perspective is a natural phenomenon where dust particles traveling through the air refract the light rays and distorts color as a result. This is why distant hills and mountains take on a bluish cast.

landscape landscape

Landscapes and the illusion of distance

Here we can see the subtle effects of dust particles in the air (atmospheric perspective) on the perceived distance in the photo to the left. However, in the grassy scene that we see up close on the right, there is no affect on the distant colors in the background. If there is, it is so subtle that it can hardly be noticed. To the left we are aware of the blue cast on the distant hills, no such effect is present in the photo to the right.

  • The following painting lesson teaches the artist how paint using controlled color intensities for creating atmospheric perspective in a composition. Several elements are based on differences between warm and cool temperatures and intense and dull colors. These lessons are e-packets and can be downloaded immediately.


Light and Intensity...

Hans Hofmann, the German born painter and art teacher commented on what made the Impressionists unique and on the way they used light. He said, "We recognize visual form only by means of light, and light only by means of form, and we further recognize that color is an effect of light in relation to form and its inherent texture.  In nature, light creates color; in painting color creates light."

Light affects Intensity & Color

Note the reduced intensity of the green on the piece that faces away from the light. The green of the Kiwi fruit is a 'bright' or intense green hue.

On close observation we can see that the intensity of the greens are affected by the amount of light that it receives.

  • The following painting lesson is presented in a 2 hr DVD and teaches the artist how paint using controlled color intensities. The goal being to create dimension and interest using intense colors to paint the roses.