Achromatic, Monochromatic and Chromatic, Oh My!

Christy Olsen

What does it all mean? Any 2D image, including drawings, paintings, or photographs, can be defined or described by shapes in various contrasting values. 'Value' is a characteristic of color. It refers to the lightness or darkness of any single color swatch.

Value & Shape

Tonal relationships, especially with various values, help us understand what we see in the world. Our vision uses the contrast of value to determine one object from another, especially in a low-lighting situation when we cannot see the 'hue' or color.

Let's explore chromatic terms with a good understanding of 'value.'

Tint, Tone, & Shade

TONE is a single-color or color swatch with an individual combination of color characteristics. Each has a unique combination of hue (color), value (light or dark), intensity (brightness or dullness), and temperature (cool or warm). Note that tone is sometimes defined as any color or hue mixed with gray. In charcoal or pencil drawings, there are only gray tones.

SHADE is created from any tone with the addition of black or dark (in a drawing, it would be a darker mark or darker pencil). TINT is any tone mixed with white (in drawing, it would be the lighter marks or the paper's white).

Students learning to draw are taught to master the color characteristic of value in charcoal or graphite before adding the color characteristic of hue or color. Drawing in achromatic or with 'no color' simplifies the complexity into gray, black, and white, so the relationship of the lights and darks may be established to manipulate a pattern or to create the illusion of realism.


Achromatic literally means "no color" or "without color." Note that it also refers to "grays" or "neutrals." Achromatic colors have the color characteristic of value (lightness and darkness) but no hue (light wavelengths) or intensity (brightness or dullness). 

Gray is an achromatic color that mixes black and white in different proportions. White reflects all hues equally because it contains all wavelengths of light. Black absorbs all wavelengths of light, so it lacks hue or color. 

An achromatic color scheme brings a sense of balance, simplicity, or elegance. Graphite or charcoal drawings are 'achromatic' or without color, i.e., grayscale in black and white. 

Achromatic Color Scheme


Monochromatic uses 'mono' or one hue or color only. A monochromatic color is a single hue that forms the base of a monochromatic color scheme. Monochromatic color schemes naturally create harmony.

Monochromatic color schemes are soothing, elegant, and easy on our eyes. This color scheme uses a variety of lightness and darkness (tone, tints, or shades) to distinguish one shape from another.

Monochromatic Color Scheme


Chromatic means having a hue or color. A chromatic color is a color that has even the slightest amount of hue or light wavelength. 'Chroma is the purity or intensity of color. The brightness or dullness of color is not to be confused with lightness or darkness, which is the value. These colors may also range from bright or vivid to deep dark tones.

Chromatic color schemes connect with the viewer emotionally. They may have a sense of energy or vibrancy, especially if they are eye-catching.

Chromatic Color Scheme

Putting it All Together

To reiterate.

  • Achromatic - Having No Color
  • Monochromatic - Having One Color
  • Chromatic - Having Multiple Colors

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