What are muted colors? How do I create muted colours? How do I convert standard colors to muted colors? Why do muted colours look the way they do? Why are they different?

Here is a bunch of colors what I call 'standard colors'.
"#ff0000", "#ffaa00", "#aaff00", "#00ff00", "#00ffaa", "#00aaff", "#0000ff", "#aa00ff", "#ff00aa"

regular colors

And here are a bunch of so called 'muted colors'.
"#f9b5b2", "#f36e4b", "#f69431", "#f1dd40", "#c6c752", "#b1cc9f", "#a5dad2", "#a2a18f", "#c8b384"

muted colors

I would appreciate responses from those with knowledge on color theory or experience with colors.

Muted colors by Meg Biram (http://www.megbiram.com/muted-color/)

  • As the answers explain, there isn't any technical definition, but you might get some interesting general guidelines from the data in the XKCD color survey. You can try seeing what properties colors identified as muted share (either in RGB or HSV).
    – Linuxios
    Nov 6 '15 at 22:57

There's no exact value that says, "this is muted" but "this is not muted."

If I were to come up with one on the spot as a general starting point I'd say use the HSB color spectrum and lower your colors S (saturation) to less than 50.

enter image description here

Or using your example image all I did was lower the Saturation which brought the S value of all of them down to around 52%:

enter image description here

But its not exact in that 52% could look muted depending on all sorts of factors. Some key ones are the viewing surface, the lighting, and the surrounding colors.

  • I thought it was just reduced saturation too. But that's not quite it. Reducing saturation just makes it murky grayish. But I tend to agree with your comment that it might be subjective and it's hard to decide what value is muted and what's not.
    – rmf
    Nov 6 '15 at 17:20
  • 2
    @Roy again, no technical definition for 'muted' but I, too, would typically attach that to saturation. However, perhaps you're leaning more towards pastels? I think the difference there would be instead of removing the saturation only, you'd also be tinting the color (adding white).
    – DA01
    Nov 6 '15 at 17:47
  • 1
    @Roy the murky grey problem comes from adjusting saturation without touching the brightness. As saturation goes down, darker colors can become very grey. Nov 6 '15 at 19:27

"Color" is an imprecise term we use in daily life. It consists of three components, Hue, Saturation, and Value. If you imagine a balloon with its equator representing the hue on a 360-degrees, its vertical axis being the value, and its horizontal axis being the saturation, you can visualize the "colors" on its inside volume.

A couple of other concepts may help with this question, "tinting" and "shading". When any color is mixed with black it is called shading which lowers the "value" and makes the color a bit more "muted". If you add white to a color it is called tinting which increases its value and makes it brighter. Not all colors can get dark or bright, most notably yellow. As you darken yellow it turns into brown.

"Muted" colors may be so because of:

  1. Lower saturation
  2. Lower value
  3. Mixing with adjacent colors
  4. Any combination of the above

In the balloon analog, the muted colors will be closer to the vertical axis (lower in saturation) and at the boundaries of "pure" colors in the spectrum. Also look for Munsell Color System on the Web, its presentation happens to include muted colors as well.


As Ryan stated, 'muted' isn't a technical term. In general, though, I'd argue that most people would consider a muted color a color that has low saturation.

I like the definition of the term on this page.

Saturation defines a range from pure color (100%) to gray (0%) at a constant lightness level. A pure color is fully saturated.

That page also mentions the term tone which is very similar...with tone being a term used more by painters and those working with subtractive color and saturation tends to be a term used by those working with additive color (digital artists, video, broadcast, etc.)


As stated in previous answers muted colors would depend on multiple factors.

  • you could minimize the amount of color or "pigment" in the color. In terms of paint mixing, you could add more black or more white to your color: by lowering the saturation you add more black. By making the brightness higher, you add more white. These colors would be what you call "muted"
  • If you want a muted combonation of colors, you need to choose colors that are neighbors to each other on the color wheel. There are three basic colors. all other colors are a mixture of these: Red, Blue,Yellow. If you mix red and blue you will recieve Purple, thus red and purple, or purple and blue are "relatives". so if you use a color pallete of blue hues and purple hues your pallete will be muted. or,alternatively you can use one color in different saturation or brightness levels, and your color pallete will be muted as well.

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