Colours. We all sort of know what they are: things are yellow, red, blue, yellowish, reddish, blueish; yellowish-red and so on. As the rapid proliferation in the previous list indicates, I would imagine that it is uncontroversial to suggest that we all agree that there are simply too many colours around. And with good reason: the list simply continues ad infinitum, with colours such as (yellowish-red)ish-blue or (reddish-blueish)-yellowish-(blueish-black) or suchlike.

To combat this problem, humans have invented various systems to cope with these descriptive issues. People who are interested in clothes or interior design might use words such as avocado-mocha or tarnished-raspberry to describe colours such as blackish-blue-red-yellow or blueish-black-red. Web designers have quantified colours according to the amount of ish-ness of each colour: either the ishness of (red, blue, yellow) or the ishness of (cyan, magenta, yellow). Of course, since cyan and magenta can hardly be deemed acceptable colours (cyan is used to describe any number of ishnesses of blue and magenta any number of ishnesses of redish-whiteish) this systems is flawed in terms of applicability to the task in hand, namely that of describing the hue of a visible object.

How can we have reached such a state of confusion? Mathematicians dislike vague confusibles, so it seems clear that we need to search for a better system of colorologisation.

When I start to solve any (well, not any, but certainly many) problem(s), I first survey the landscape to see which parts of the structure under analysis are likely to lead to insights of further structure and which parts are merely window dressing, as window dressers might say.

I would suggest that the best way to begin would be to determine which colours are structural and which are distracting window dressing.

According to Wikipedia’s List_of_colours there are clearly only a few different colours. However, if you look carefully at their names you will see that a great many of these are window dressed:

Valid Colours — White, Black, Grey, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue

Semi-Valid Colours — Purple, Pink, Brown etc.

Barely-Valid Colour — Fuchsia, Puce, Violet, Indigo etc.

Invalid Colours — Thistle, Papaya Whip, Fandango, Gamboge, Pale Cerulean, Chamoisee

Do I need to go on? I mean, Papaya Whip? Surely that is a joke? Did someone really sit down and decide that the best way to describe (red, green, blue) =  (255, 239, 213) would be the ‘representation of the color that would result if mashed papayas were blended with vanilla ice cream or yogurt.’ This is the least mathematical thing I can recall encountering in a long time. From my fridge, if I scrabbled for papayas and (presumably) the old carton of natural yogurt the colour resulting would be more of a speckled-brownish-papaya whip, as opposed to the pure papaya whip that, presumably, one might purchase in a well-regulated franchise-like operation such as Starbucks (whom, for the record, I admire greatly due to the simplicity of their excellent filter coffee which is served full or not full, using the code ‘NOT(room for milk)’).

As with all situations where nonsense proliferates, it is because there is no sense to the underlying structure – the continuum of hue is too complex for the human brain to understand properly, at least without a physics degree.

I would therefore propose a practical simplification of the colour system in which valid colours are simply the four primaries (Black, Red, Green, Blue) along with straight 50-50 mixes of a pair of colours or 33-33-33 mixes of three of the colours or 25-25-25-25 mixes of four of the colours of Black, Red, Green, Blue.

This leaves a very pleasing, unambiguous mix of colours: Black, Red, Green, Blue, BlackRed, BlackGreen, BlackBlue, RedGreen, RedBlue, GreenBlue, NOT(Black), Not(Red), Not(Green), Not(Blue), Not()=BlackRedGreenBlue.

Mmm, now I’ve decided what colours we should have I wonder what they actually look like? Excel came to the rescue, and this is the palette obtained:

I wonder what names for these are given by Probably some ridiculous things, such as telephone green or sunset chocolate. Anyway, that’s irrelevant. These should be the permissible colours, and that’s that.

Once these are in place we have certain simplifications. For example, the colours of the rainbow become:

Red, Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Blue, Blue (Richard, Real Yorkshireman, Gave Battle Bloody Badly)

Actually, I was tempted to look up the official names of these colours: I have (in order of dubiousness) Black, White, Blue, Yellow, Red (OK so far),  Purple (probably identifiable), Maroon, Olive, Teal (I’ve heard of them. Probably red-ish, green-ish, blue-ish or something) , Trolley Gray, Office Green (my office is green, but my trolley is made of wood) and, finally Ao (English) and Electric Cyan. What sort of a descriptor is Ao??? Any decent colour ought to be identifiable by your average person. So, my system fails: we need to kill off the last 3 and probably maroon and teal aswell (Olive survives on account of the fact that it describes, in fact, the colour of an olive; I’ve never seen a maroon or a teal, although I have seen someone steal a macaroon, if that helps).

At this point, I suppose that I ought to point out that I am red-green colour blind. Although I can distinguish red and green in large blocks, small amounts are tricky. Perhaps my eyes are telling me something obvious: we need to identify red with green or kill off green or kill off red. I’d go with the latter, but that it just a personal preference.

Colours of the rainbow then become:

Black, Green, Blue, BlackGreen, BlackBlue, GreenBlue and NOT()

Ah, much better. Looking for the closest match the rainbow becomes -,Green, Green, Green, Blue, Blue, Blue which is a lot simpler to remember. (a suitable version of ‘Richard of York’ eludes me at the moment)

Shame that some ridiculous names still survive. Still, at least I now know the Teal is BlackGreenBlue.

Maybe I’ll see what various images look like in this new, nicely discrete colour system. But maybe not. I think that I am happy that a sensible solution exists.

As with all my blog posts, please read my disclaimer.


Papaya Whip, The Internet.

list_of_colours, The Internet.

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5 Responses to Colours

  1. Bob says:

    Ooops! My comment somehow went onto the disclaimer post. Oh well.

    Re. your colour-blindness, in Welsh the same word is used to refer to blue and green. There are quite a few villages with a “Green Hut” in them, which is either green or blue.

    I think there’s a progression of which colour distinctions colours make as they develop: light / dark, then light / dark / colour e.g. red, and so on. Welsh happens to have stopped earlier than English.

  2. Alison says:

    Did you hear about the terrible accident when the red paint ship crashed into the blue paint ship? The sailors were marooned.
    If you abolish all those colours, it will make it much harder for me to finish my latest crochet project; a blanket whose colours I think you would describe as blue, blue, blue, bluey-green, blue, dark blue and greeny-blue.

  3. Paul B says:

    My mind sometimes thinks that that we are somehow missing a primary colour… red, green and blue don’t seem to be enough!

    btw, red-blue is magenta, and green-blue is cyan. I’m sure there’s also a common name for the strange red-green one too 🙂

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