Saturation refers to the perceived difference between one colour and another in terms of vividness. The hue of a vivid colour appears to be at full strength rather than insipid or washed out.

Associating saturation with a colour model

To avoid confusion about the term saturation, it is best to associate it with a colour model, a practical application and a family of related terms.

  • Examples of colour models include spectral colour, RGB colour, CMYK colour and HSB colour.
  • Examples of practical applications include digital design, stage lighting, mixing of oil or water-based paints, inks and dyes.
Colour in general terms
  • When an observer asks themselves what colour something is, they might refer to spectral colours and use names associated with rainbows (ROYGBV), to a set of colours (a palette of colours) they are working with or to a family of colours such as warm or cool colours.
  • A broader vocabulary of names can be used to describe colours such as dark red, vermilion, golden yellow, lemon yellow, pale yellow, greenish-yellow, chartreuse, leaf green or light green.
  • A colour model derived from a theory of colour allows for a more exact and reproducible approach to colour.
Colour models
  • Colour models are the how-to part of colour theory. Together they establish terms and definitions, rules or conventions and a system of notation for encoding colours and their relationships with one another.
  • These days, the most practical colour models are built into applications such as Adobe Creative Cloud which allow easy digital output to TV’s, computers and phones or printing onto paper and other surfaces.
  • Widely used colour models include:
    • Spectral colour
    • RGB colour
    • HSB colour
    • CMYK colour
Using the term saturation
  • At we use saturation in relation to the colour models it belongs to. One of our favourites is the HSB colour model.
  • Colour models describe the attributes of colour in different ways.
  • The HSB colour model refers to saturation alongside hue and brightness.
  • The HSB colour model is extensively used for digital design and can be used to describe any colour on a TV, computer or mobile phone.
  • The CMYK colour model uses a different set of attributes because one of its main concerns is how coloured inks appear on paper. Because saturation isn’t part of the vocabulary used in that field the term is best avoided.
Saturation and wavelength
  • A colour appears saturated when it contains a narrow range of wavelengths.
  • Unsaturated colours appear washed out because they contain a broader range of wavelengths.
  • Saturation is related to light complexity. Complexity refers to the range or spread of wavelengths of light used to produce a colour.
  • A colour produced by a single wavelength of light is often referred to as pure spectral colour.
  • In real-life, colour is usually produced by a mixture of different wavelengths. The greater number of spectral colours in a light, the lower the saturation.
HSB colour model
  • The HSB colour model provides an intuitive way to select and adjust colours in software applications used for graphic design, web development and photography.
  • HSB describes the fundamental characteristics of how colours appear when reflected by or transmitted through an object towards an observer as:
    • Hue refers to the perceived difference between one colour and another by using names such as red, yellow, green or blue. Hue can be measured as a location on the standard colour wheel and expressed as a degree between 0 and 360.
    • Saturation refers to the perceived difference between one colour and another in terms of vividness. Saturation is measured between a fully saturated colour (100%) and an unsaturated colour that appear dull and washed out until all colour disappears leaving only a monochromatic grey tone (0%). On many colour wheels, saturation increases from the centre to the edge.
    • Brightness refers to the perceived difference between a colour observed in ideal sunlit conditions compared with conditions where the vitality of the hue is lost because the lighting is poor. Brightness can be measured as a percentage from 100% to 0%. As the brightness of a fully saturated hue decreases it appears progressively darker.