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Return to Sophicolor U Color In Production: Part II – Describing Color

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Color is the driving force behind most retail purchases. To ensure a successful season, it would be helpful to first develop a universal color language that flows throughout the design, distribution, and production process. All the way through this process, the color standards need to be distributed with viewing instructions, proper handling instructions and expectations on the quality of the match. First, we must begin by agreeing on definitions of terms.

Guidelines To Language Definition

The first item that must be agreed upon is the source of light utilized when viewing the color. Carefully chosen words to describe color differences will be useless unless both colorists are viewing the color in the same light. All visual color evaluation must be done in a light booth because the light sources available in the light booth are calibrated and standardized.

The next step is to seek out nouns and adjectives that have universal and intuitive meanings. For many of us, there are eleven basic color names which have been identified and have meaning to us from as early as kindergarten: white, gray, black, red, yellow, green, blue, orange, purple, pink and brown (Billmeyer, Saltzman, p20). Additionally, there is a need to describe color with more exactness, for example, there are countless variations of green and we need to be able to relate these differences.

Designers are the driving force behind the entire product line, because without their vision our products would not exist. We also have found a growing population of colorists that work in a technical capacity; they may be the retail corporate colorists reviewing bulk production or the actual dyer/printer of the color. Technical colorists often use instruments to measure color, evaluate color, and generate predictions.

The subjective nature of color can be clearly communicated among technical colorists and design teams by simply choosing well-defined terms. The limitations of various textiles, monitors, printed material and printed textiles can also be communicated effectively if all parties are “speaking the same language.” Below are the definitions of some basic terms used to describe textiles.

Technical Color Language

Shade – In textiles and paper this can be synonymous with “color.” (Shade card, shade matching, off shade, on shade) (Peacock, 11)

Tint – Dyers refer to the very weak color resulting from adding a very small amount of bright dye to a white substrate. (Peacock, 11)

Tone – Used by some artists as synonymous with “color," other colorists use this word to describe a “cast”. (Peacock, 11)

Hue – Attribute of a visual perception according to which an area appears to be similar to one of the colors, red yellow green and blue, or to combination of adjacent pairs of these colors considered in a closed ring. (Billmeyer & Saltzman, 2000)

Lightness – Attribute by which a perceived color is judged to be equivalent to one of a series of grays ranging from black to white. (Billmeyer & Saltzman, 2000)

Chroma – Attribute of color used to indicate the degree of departure of the color from a gray of the same lightness. (ASTM E 284)

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Illuminant Language

Brighter More saturated, or chroma
Duller Less saturated, or chroma
Dirtier* Duller, less saturated, or chroma
Whiter Lighter, more saturated possibly
More black Darker, less saturated, or chroma

Illuminant standard definitions need to be provided to the mills or services, and the illuminant name and the color temperature should be provided for each light source (i.e.D65 6500K). Given the numerous methods of creating color, matching in multiple light sources is often not achievable. The following terms are sometimes confused when color evaluations are made, and it is useful to define these terms with color team members to provide clear understanding.

Color Constancy – General tendency of the color of an object to remain constant when the level and color of the illumination has changed. (Billmeyer & Saltzman, 2000)

This is the proper term to use when your color standard “flares” red in one illuminant.

Metamarism – Phenomenon in which spectrally different stimuli match to a given observer (Billmeyer & Saltzman, 2000). This term is only used for two objects being viewed together, as a standard and a batch.

Standardize Viewing Requirements

Standardized viewing is vital to accomplish successful communication in describing color. Light sources, angle of view, and the size of sample to be viewed are parameters that need to be identified and communicated upon request of the color sample. Variables that can be controlled in viewing include:

  • Thickness of the sample viewed.
  • Use of a same size window or opening (often a card with a square cut out of the center) to view two samples side by side.
  • View with gray (or white) color under the sample.
  • View one color at a time (no other colors in the light booth).
  • View in a dark room with only the light booth illuminant.

The careful consideration and communication of these needs in clear and precise language will allow for a successful process.

To summarize, all colorists, regardless of their specialty, have the same goal, to achieve the desired color. The ability to achieve this goal as a supply chain team exists for the future success of concept to consumer. The key to that success is good communication, and at the heart of good communication is clear and precise language. Language should be discussed and agreed upon before colors are evaluated. Design teams, textile colorists, textile printers, and all colorists can work successfully together within the parameters of the agreed system.


Berns, Roy S. “Billmeyer and Saltzman’s : Principles of Color Technology”. John Wiley &Sons. New York, 2000. 3rd Edition

Gage, John, “Color and Meaning, Art, Science and Symbolism”, University of California Press, Berkeley. 1999

Peacock, W. H. “The Practical Art of Color Matching” American Cyanamid Company. 1953

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