Speaking Color

You’re late for a meeting with the designer who is redoing your offices. On the way into the conference room, you pass a colleague who says the new colors are “gross.” You enter the room and get a full presentation on a grey and mauve color scheme that looks really nice to you. Later, you ask your colleague about her comment and discover that “gross” actually meant “out of fashion.”

If we could get inside each other’s heads, communication about color would be more accurate. Since we can’t, we must fall back on language to describe what we perceive. There are some, like Mary Buckley, an artist and educator, who believe this is a good thing. She says that “detecting and naming attributes is basic to developing an understanding of light and color.”

Indeterminate, or nonmeasurable, attributes, such as shocking pink and clear-sky blue, are more than just adjectives. They are terms we use to explain the effect a color has on us. They are the words we use to describe our state of mind as we experience colors. Buckley is among a growing number of colorists and designers who believe that naming the intent of a space through the use of indeterminate attributes must occur before any discussion of specific colors. Users should first respond to the question “What should the space feel like?”

The subjective responses to this question will direct designers in their color choices. Sometimes these indeterminate attributes verge on a synesthetic response: They use the language of one sense to describe the perception of another, as in loud pink and tart green. But perhaps the most interesting attributes we commonly use are warm (reds, oranges, and yellows) and cool (greens, blues, and purples). These divisions are deeply embedded in our thinking, as evidenced by the red faucet for hot water and the blue for cold found in most washrooms, even though the actual temperature of red light is cooler than that of blue light.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, however, the focus shifted away from a reliance on language to communicate color. In order for manufacturers with plants scattered around the country to maintain color consistency in their products, they began searching for a new technology that would provide accurate color definition. During the last half of the nineteenth century, several people developed more precise ways to describe specific colors. They based their work on three basic, universal, measurable characteristics of color: 1) which spectral category it belongs to; 2) how light or dark a color is; and 3) how brilliant or dull it is.

Color terms for these characteristics vary. Some use the distinctions warm/cool, light/dark, and brilliant/dull. Others speak of hue, value, and chroma. Hue is the basic name of a color, such as red, yellow, green, or blue. Value indicates how light or dark a color is. Chroma is the amount of hue in a color. For example, vermilion has a great deal of red but pink has very little. Munsell’s System describes color in three dimensions. The American art educator Albert Munsell (1858-1918) developed the widely used

Munsell Color System, which arranges all colors on the basis of their appearance.

He was the first to call the three main characteristics of color “hue,” “value,” and “chroma,” likening them to a musical note’s pitch, tone, and intensity. Others, such as the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), developed color systems based on different scientific principles. But all color systems share one common feature—they all map the three characteristics of color in three dimensions on XYZ axes. According to Sloane, “Dimensions beyond these three exist, although we do not know how to incorporate a fourth or further spatial dimension into the model graphically. Colors, for example, can vary in shininess of surface. The Munsell System acknowledges this parameter but suggests no way to incorporate it into the three-dimensional color solid.”

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