Colour Ranges

Dec 5th, 2011 | | Colour Ranges | No Comments

A Dictionary of Color Names

ISCC-NBS cover

The ISCC-NBS Method of Designating Colors and A Dictionary of Color Names was published by the National Bureau of Standards and printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1955. It is a curious work, and quite unlike any of the other dictionaries or nomenclatures of colour.

The preface to this work (whilst slightly dated) was written by A.V. Astin, the director of The Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC). He explained its purpose well:

“Ever since the language of man began to develop, words or expressions have been used first to indicate and then to describe colors. Some of these have persisted throughout the centuries and are those which refer to the simple colors or ranges such as red or yellow. As the language developed, more and more color names were invented to describe the colors used by art and industry and in late years in the rapidly expanding field of sales promotion. Some of these refer to the pigment or dye used, as Ochre Red or Cochineal, or a geographical location of its source such as Naples Yellow or Byzantium. Later when it became clear that most colors are bought by or for women, many color names indicative of the beauties and wiles of the fair sex were introduced, as French Nude, Heart’s Desire, Intimate Mood, or Vamp. Fanciful color names came into vogue such as Dream Fluff, Happy Day, Pearly Gates, and Wafted Feather. Do not suppose that these names are without economic importance; for a dark reddish gray hat for Milady might be a best seller if advertised as Mauve Wine whereas it probably would not if the color were called Paris Mud. Some color names, such as Blue Turquoise or Golden Poppy, are at the same time self-explanatory and also suited to the promotion of the sales of fabrics. Other color names are not what they seem, for how would one know that African Green is in reality a blue or that Blue Fox will turn out to be a reddish gray? Literature is indeed richer because of such color names as Cold Morn, Folly, Kitten’s Ear, Languid, Lavender, Risigal, Teen Age Pink, and Zedoary Wash, and their precise meanings deserve to be systematically listed.”

Naples Yellow - with thanks to Zachary Kator

Naples Yellow – with thanks to Zachary Kator

“The purpose of this dictionary is to assist the scientist, businessman and layman to understand the different color vocabularies used in the many fields of art, science and industry. Some of these vocabularies are very similar, in fact they borrow from one another, while others are nearly or completely unintelligible to workers in another field. The dictionary will serve not only as a record of the meanings of the 7,500 individual color names listed but it will also enable anyone to translate from one color vocabulary to another. As an example, what is the meaning of Griseo Viridis? This dictionary shows that Griseo Viridis (biology) = Serpentine (fashion) = Mint Green, or in ordinary language, a light green.”

Munsell HVC Chart

Simplified Munsell Chart, showing Hue, Value and Chroma

The work relied heavily on the Munsell system of colour notation, which will be considered in another post. The colour names were taken from a wide range of sources, mainly American. The principal ones were:

Maerz and Paul Dictionary of Color1
This was produced by Aloys John Maerz and Morris Rea Paul and first published in 1930. It was this edition, rather than the second which appeared in 1950, that was used in the compilation of the Dictionary of Colors as it was felt that the colours were better reproduced.

Many of the colour names listed in Maerz and Paul consist of a specific name followed by a generic name in brackets – for example Canary [Yellow]. This form was retained in the Dictionary.

Plochere Color System
In 1948 Gladys and Gustave Plochere published a book entitled Plochere Color System, a Guide to Color and Color Harmony. Associated with this book were 1.248 cards, 3 x 5 inches, each illustrating a different colour made by mixing one or more of nine basic pigments with black and white.

Each colour was assigned a number, a code designation indicative of the colour, the paint formula and a colour name. The range has subsequently been increased to 1,456 colours and can be obtained from the company, who are based in Los Angeles.

Plochere Colour aids © Plochere Color System
Plochere Color System

Horticultural Colour Chart
Another work that was used to compile the Dictionary was the Horticultural Colour Chart produced by Robert F. Wilson, secretary of the British Colour Council, and already covered in these pages.

This colour system was based on a hue circle of 64 saturated colours, supplemented by tints (admixtures of more white pigment), shades (admixtures of less white pigment), and tones (produced by adding gray) making 200 named colours.

Horticultural Colour Chart
Wilson Colour Chart (otherwise known as the Horticultural Colour Chart)

Ridgway Color Standards and Color Nomenclature2
In 1912 Robert Ridgway, the American ornithologist, published a book of Color Standards and Color Nomenclature. It contained 53 coloured plates and 1,115 named colours and was principally designed with the aim of assisting biologists, botanists, entomologists, geologists, mineralogists, ornithologists, pathologists and zoologists for the “proper and lasting specification of the colors of natural objects.”

Ridgway - Plate IX
Ridgway Color Standards and Color Nomenclature – Plate IX

Rock-Color Chart
In 1948 the National Research Council issued a Rock-Color Chart, which had been developed by a committee whose chairman was E.N. Goddard, representing the U.S. Geological Survey, the Geological Society of America, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Economic Geologists and the Association of American State Geologists.

The colour terms were adapted to rock colours and the colours were generally of the lower Munsell chromas.

Rock Colours - © Lenville J. Stelle
Measuring the Colour of Rocks
With thanks to Lenville J. Stelle. The Rock Art of the Blood of the Ancestors Grotto.
Center for Social Research, Parkland College, Champaign, Illinois USA.

Postage Stamp Color Names
For many years Wm. H. Beck, of Baltimore, had worked on a standardisation of the colour names used in the Scott Stamp Catalog to describe the colours of stamps. To this end he had prepared a reproduction of the Munsell Book of Color in stamps, in which were mounted about 4,000 stamps which he felt best exemplified the most important colour names in philately.

The Dictionary and How it Can be Used
The main body of the Dictionary was made up of the following sections:

a) Colour name charts;
b) Synonymous and near-synonymous colour names with their sample identifications, and
c) An alphabetical dictionary of colour names.

In order to illustrate how I use the Dictionary I will explain how I named the colours in a collection of 1960s paint colours that we produced a few years ago at Papers and Paints

1960s Range

Having carried out a study of paint colours in use during the 1960s I produced a collection that best represented that decade. Part of the exercise involved the naming of each one. The names had to evoke the period – Deep Purple and Norwegian Blue being two rather obvious (and slightly hackneyed) examples. However, for the others I turned to the Dictionary.

A Red from the 1960s range

The first thing that I did was to measure the colours with a spectrophotometer. Amongst other readings that I obtained was the exact Munsell notation. In the case of the above red it was:

4.7R 4.1/9.5


4.7R = Hue,
4.1 = Value, and
9.5 = Chroma

Munsell marked
Munsell Notation 5R

The above page, showing Munsell notation 5.0R, indicates the approximate position of the colour.

In order to find which colour names in the Dictionary related to this sort of red, I turned to the Color Name Chart that covered the red colours that fell within the Munsell 4R – 6R notation.

I then plotted a Value of 4.1 on the vertical axis and a Chroma of 9.5 on the horizontal axis. The point on the chart where these two met was termed moderate red (see red ‘X’ below).

Munsell Range
Color Name Chart for Munsell 4R – 6R

It was then a matter of turning to the pages of Synonymous and near-synonymous color names with their sample identifications in order to see what names were offered under the heading Moderate Red.

Moderate Red
Moderate Red – category marked by a red ‘X’

Having worked through the list, I decided that Rapture best fitted the bill. This was a Plochere colour, whose number was 347 R 2-c.

Moderate Red

In the final section of the book – the Dictionary of Color Names one could look up a name and see what sort of colour it was and where it could be seen. For example Amarylis was described as being found in the Maerz and Paul Dictionary of Color; as being either a moderate red from section 15 of the previous part of the Dictionary or a Grayish Red from section 19.

I cannot pretend that this is either an attractive work or one that is in constant use, but it does succeed in collating information from a variety of fairly obscure sources of colour. It certainly should form part of any collection of works dealing with colour.

Current Availability of Colours
As with almost all the colours shown on this site they could be mixed into conventional modern paint by Papers and Paints Ltd

1 I hope to write in more detail about the Maerz and Paul Dictionary of Color in the future.
2 Similarly, a separate post will consider the Ridgway Color Standards and Color Nomenclature.

Papers and Paints can be found here:

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