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Seventeenth century colour swatch book
A page from a manual of colour mixing from the seventeenth century

Harnessing technology to inspire colour choices

Colour referencing and selection charts

Paints and inks depend for their colour on pigments and dyes, so a referencing system is required to match specific combinations of colouring substances against the resulting colour.

The earliest record of this comes from 1692, with a hand-painted chart called the Klaer Lightende Spiegel der Verfkonst (currently kept in the Bibliotheque Mejanes in Aix-en-Provence). This chart has 800 pages of shades of watercolour paint, each with the recipes used to produce them. It was very similar to the colour matching systems developed by companies such as Pantone, nearly 300 years later, to provide colour selection and checking charts for the modern paint, ink and dye industries. In fact, several different systems have been developed so that a colour can be defined precisely, and designers can communicate clearly with production teams. The systems are available in one-page charts, or in the form of swatchbooks or colour-matching fandecks.

The Pantone system is used mainly in the printing industry, and sometimes for paint, fabric, and plastics.

RAL (Reichsausschuß für Lieferbedingungen) is a colour matching system used in Europe, mainly for varnish and powder coating colours, in architecture, construction, industry and road safety. It was founded as an independent quality assurance organisation in 1925 in Germany, to ensure standardisation across industry as the country recovered from the first World War.

The Munsell colour system was the first practical attempt to organise colour in a colour space with three dimensions: hue, value (lightness) and chroma (colour purity). Created by Prof Albert H Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century (he wanted to find a way of giving a decimal notation for colour to his art students, instead of misleading colour names) the system is still used in certain sectors of industry, particularly in the USA.

ARS Colour is a referencing system for dyed yarns, eg cotton, wool, and viscose in the carpet textile and home furnishing industry, and takes the form of dyed textile ‘poms’ rather than a flat one-dimensional colour chart.

Natural Colour System differs from other colour referencing systems in that it aims to define colours from their visual appearance, as they are experienced by human consciousness, rather than how they are ‘made’ using different media, such as light, or pigments. The NCS system is based around four psychological primary colours (red, blue, yellow and green) rather than the customary three (red, blue and yellow). It is used as the standard reference system in Sweden, Norway and Spain, and has also been adopted by independent manufacturers as a system of referencing their products.

Digital colour

Colour referencing has had to develop to provide standards and check the colour rendition in new means of image reproduction, such as film and television. For accurate colour reproduction in digital media, the calibration has to involve all devices in the process chain, from the original image, the scanner or digital camera, to the monitor and/or printer.

Digital colour is referenced using RGB or Hex colour codes – both of these are a way of representing the red, green and blue components of a colour.

More about digital colours for the web

Colour extraction tools

It’s both helpful and interesting to ask a digital application to extract the colours from an image – we can often be surprised at the variety. There are quite a few of these apps available on the internet free of charge, and some are listed below. In each case you upload an image from your computer, and the app will create a colour palette of all the individual colours in the image. With some you can vary the settings, so you can choose how much detail to provide in the analysis. These tools are primarily intended for web designers, and provide a listing of colours with their RGB or Hex notation. However, they can also provide inspiration for designers and creatives in other disciplines. You may need to save images at a lower resolution in order to successfully upload them to these apps.

Color Explorer

TinEye Labs


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This article is from the free online course:

The Power of Colour

KLC School of Design