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Color saturation refers to the intensity of color in an image. As the saturation increases, the colors appear to be more pure. As the saturation decreases, the colors appear to be more washed-out or pale.
A highly saturated image has vivid, rich and bright colors, while an image with a low saturation will veer towards a scale of grey. In most monitor devices, televisions and graphic editing programs there’s an option to increase or decrease saturation.
Color saturation ultimately is one of the three color properties, the other two being hue and value. Saturation is sometimes called “chroma” although the two terms have a slightly different meaning.
While chroma defines the brilliance of a color in absolute terms according to the Munsell Color System, saturation is relative to pure gray. However, in nearly all instances, this difference is quite negligible in practice.
In technical terms, color saturation is the expression of the bandwidth of light from a source. The term hue refers to the color of the image itself, while saturation describes the intensity (purity) of that hue.
When color is fully saturated, the color is considered in purest (truest) version. Once lightness level is set as constant, saturation is defined as a percentage that ranges from 0% (grayscale) to pure color (100%).
Everything desaturated color that sits in between will look as a washed out, dull, and somewhat softer version of the true color. Primary colors red, blue and yellow are considered truest version color as they are fully saturated.
Color saturation determines how certain hue will look in certain lighting conditions. For example, a wall painted with a solid color will look different during the day than it does at night.
Because of the light, the saturation of the wall will change over the course of day, although it is still the same color. When the saturation is zero, what you will see is a shade of gray.
However, saturation does not define how light or dark a color is. Although many saturated colors tend to be lighter than less saturated ones, adding white to the latter will increase their brightness until both values will match.
In fact, brightness of the color is controlled by the amount of the white in the hue.
Naturally, colors tend to get less saturated as the object is farther from the observer and recedes into the distance because of a phenomenon known as “atmospheric perspective.”
In natural light, tints get diluted by the atmosphere itself, so in many paintings progressive desaturation is used to creates the illusion of depth. The colors of distant object become gradually less saturated while those in the foreground are brighter and more vivid.
Though most digital graphic editing programs allow free control of color saturation through gradients and tools such as a saturation matrix, in real life (such as when you want to paint your miniatures) saturation is always a disruptive process.
In other words, when using physical paints, the saturation of a color can only be decreased by mixing it with another color, and the process is irreversible.
That’s the reason why most painting tubes use very saturated pigments to prevent painters from obtaining undesirable “mud” when mixing too many colors together.