The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 11, Number 4
Jun 1987

Standard Colors

Reprinted from the December 1980 Abbey Newsletter. NBS has confirmed that the 1976 edition is the current one, and that the price has not changed.

Anyone who has tried to describe an exact color over the telephone, or had someone else try to describe one to them, has appreciated to some degree the value of reference standards for colors. We make a stab at using reference standards when we refer to "sky blue" or "blood red" or "forest green," but if the occasion calls for us to be exact, we soon discover that the other person has something different in mind than we do. Without special aids, it is impossible to nail the concept down.

Color chips are used in paint stores and other places, but they are rarely available to both parties when you need them, and few of them are universally enough used to be called standard. Furthermore, the color chips, especially those used only for retail selling purposes, may fade in time. There are actually a number of carefully worked out color systems for different purposes, but some of them are too inexact for the scientist, and others too complex for the layman, while industry needs something in between.

A "Rosetta Stone" for color systems known as the "Color Names Dictionary" was first published by the Inter-Society Color Council and the National Bureau of Standards in 1955, and was reprinted for the sixth time with revisions in 1976. This dictionary lists and correlates colors from 14 systems in one section by their name (e.g., "Puce") and defines them by the ISCC-NBS designation (e.g., "d.R 16," or dark red #16). In another section it groups similar colors together under headings like "l.yG," or light yellowish green. It includes colors from systems in the fields of interior decorating, biology, botany, mass marketing, textile sales promotion, dyes, paint, horticulture, plastics, rock colors, philately and soil colors.

This dictionary has two supplements: 1) the ISCC-NBS Centroid Color Charts, illustrating 267 generic color names, and serving as a key for translating from one system to another; and 2) a l9-page article, "The Universal Color Language," which updates the dictionary and describes the principles on which it and the color charts are based. It states on page A10, "With a set of Centroid Colors, we can now see directly what the average person is supposed to mean when he uses one of the ISCC-NBS color names. Since the block number, the corresponding ISCC-NBS color designation and the Munsell notation of each of the Centroid Colors are listed in the table attached to each set of these charts, the Centroid Colors form an extremely useful and inexpensive set of special color standards." (The Munsell set may still be the last word in color definition, but it is very expensive. The Centroid Colors and the color dictionary seem intended as a more financially accessible standard.)

The Centroid Colors can be ordered from the Office of Standard Reference Materials, National Bureau of Standards, Washington, DC 20234, at $19.00 a set. The dictionary and "The Universal Color Language" are issued together under a common title as Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names, by Kenneth L. Kelly and Deanne B. Judd. National Bureau of Standards, Spec. Publ. 440, Dec. 1976. 189 p. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, USGPO, Washington, DC 20402. Price $4.00. Stock No. 003-003-01705-1.

Binders and conservators may need this sort of reference work for documentation purposes. The exact recording of colors of restored items cannot be entrusted to the image on a color slide, because all color films fade.

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