Colour Matching

Trying to define colours in words is a deeply frustrating pastime; ‘Have you ever seen the grass so green, Or a bluer sky?’ as they sing in the musical Mary Poppins.

I remember hearing once* that Schoenberg, at the start of one of his string quartets, instructs the performers to play etwas langsamer anfangen (‘slower’). The radio presenter mentioned this curious instruction, adding ‘Slower than what?’ in a puzzled tone; at which his audience burst out laughing.

But this incident made me wonder about the idea of colour matching. We may not necessarily require a colour that is actually blue, but we may need one (or think that we need one) that is bluer than what is currently available.

Industrial colour matching techniques usually make use of pure shades of pigment, in a range of white reductions, the compile an algorithm which enables predictions to be made as to the required blend of pigments to replicate a given colour.

This is a fine procedure and is generally effective; however, I would like to see a different approach investigated. What would happen if we started with a mixture of six pigments (including black and white) and then measured the colour shift as each ingredient was successively reduced? Possibly we would start with a dirty grey-brown colour which could acquire a slightly greener (or redder) tint as various components were withdrawn from the mixture. Or – a faint possibility – we could find that the overall colour is completely indifferent to the relative quantities of individual pigments.

I haven’t heard of anybody who has explored this oblique method of shade analysis, but I think it would make an interesting project for some bored student. And like Schoenberg’s ‘slower’, it would make us think more carefully when we declare (for instance) that something needs to be bluer.


*BBC Radio 3, ‘Discovering Music: Schoenberg String Quartet no. 2. Air from other planets’.


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