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Specifying colours exactly

Tuesday 29 August 2017

The postman delivered a new book today, The anatomy of colour: the story of heritage paints and pigments by Patrick Baty. I have just had time for a quick flip through​—​enough to see that it is full of wonderful detail, as I have come to expect from reading the author’s blog.

Baty opens a chapter on colour systems and standards with this quote from a 1907 book by A S Jennings:

If half-a-dozen practical painters, experienced in colour mixing, were asked seperately to mix a given colour; say a sea green, it is almost certain that when the six colours were compared there would be no two alike.

Baty goes on to discuss the colour system developed by Albert Munsell and set out in his important book A color notation, published in 1905:

Munsell began his book with a lengthy quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson that perfectly summed up the kind of dilemma that anyone working with colour might still encounter. Writing from Samoa on 8 October 1892 to Sidney Colvin in London, Stevenson proposed:

“Perhaps in the same way it might amuse you to send us any pattern of wall paper that might strike you as cheap, pretty and suitable for a room in a hot and extremely bright climate. It should be borne in mind that our climate can be extremely dark, too. Our sitting room is to be var­nished in wood. The room I have particularly in mind is a sort of bed and sitting room, pretty large, lit on three sides, and the colour in favour of its proprietor at present is a topazy yellow. But then with what colour to relieve it? For a little workroom of my own at the back, I should rather like to see some patterns of unglossy​—​well, I’ll be hanged if I can describe this red​—​it’s not Turkish and it’s not Roman and it’s not Indian, but it seems to partake of the two last, and yet it can’t be either of them because it ought to be able to go with vermilion. Ah what a tangled web we weave​—​anyway, with what brains you have left, choose me and send me some​—​many​—​patterns of this exact shade.”

This diagram shows the three variables that are measured in the Munsell colour system​—​hue, value, and chroma. It shows neutral (grey) values in steps of 1 from 0 to 10, a circle of 10 hues at value 5 and chroma 6, chromas of purple-blue in steps of 2 from 0 to 12, at value 5. [This image © 2007 Jacob Rus, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 licence]

I have been a fan of the Munsell colour notation since I started using it to record and analyse evidence of paint colours on his­toric buildings back in 1982. The system is perfectly precise. But it lacks the poetry of some other, less exact, ways of nam­ing colours​—​I am thinking of that lovely name eau-de-nil (‘water of the Nile’), so amorphous and indefinite. That name could em­brace a thousand subtle shades and hues.






The Munsell notation for this colour is 7.5GY 7/4. This, according to British Standard 381c 1964 (‘Colours for specific purposes’), is what eau-de-nil is meant to be, exactly.

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