Have you ever thought about the fact that the sky could actually be red to someone, but calls it blue because of the way that person was taught?

It was quite weird to think about the question above at first. Then one realises that the fact that each colour has its own name is even weirder. Why is red this colour? Why is blue this colour? Who gave those colours their names?

Well, up until the 1960s it was believed that societies just picked and named colours randomly. However, Paul Kay and Brent Berlin disputed this assumption by finding indications of a universal pattern through their research in 1969. They suggested that as languages developed, basic colour terms were established in the following order: black/white, red, green, yellow, blue and then all the other colours like orange, browns and pinks.

Having established how basic colour terms have progressed, how can different tones of blue distinguished?

Abstract painting with different shades of blue

Abstract painting | by Nick Collins via Pexels.com

Nature-based Colour Terms

Back in 1856 Robert Ridgway proposed and began naming colours based on nature. He published a book in 1886, in which he presented 186 colours. Even diagrams of birds were added in, since the book was intended for experts in wildlife. Years later in 1912, Ridgway expanded on this even further by publishing “Colour Standards & Colour Nomenclature”. This book consisted of an astounding 1,115 colours referencing birds and other elements of nature.

Even though people might remember colour terms better this way, there were some researchers and artists, who did not agree with this language-based terminology. Thus, they started looking for way to name colours systematically.

Number-based Colour Terms

Albert Henry Munsell was one of the firsts to give colours names that only included a few numbers and letters. It was in the early 20th century when he created a spatial model of colour and so, the Munsell Colour System was born. He portrayed his model on a colour sphere and created three dimensions: hue, value (refers to lightness) and chroma (refers to purity). You can think of these dimentions as coordinates (x,y,z), so that every colours pretty much has its own ‘address’.

Munsell’s model was ground breaking. There have been attempts to portray colours in different shapes (pyramids and hemispheres, for examples) but each of them had flaws. He was the first to be a, what people back in the day would have said, “lally-cooler”

Lally-cooler: a real success (NPR)

Since then, number-based colour terms have gained popularity. It did not seem to have limitations since colours and names could always be added. Numbering colours also seemed to create a somewhat universal representation of the colours. Just like sheet music, a particular colour can be replicated when knowing its code.

Munsell's Colour System

Munsell’s Colour System | Simon A. Eugster [CC BY 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Digital Colour Codes

Nowadays, digital artists and designers use this to their benefit by creating works with colour codes. The current systems work a bit differently than Munsell’s, though. They are called CMYK, RGB and hexadecimal codes (the latter actually being RGB in numerical and alphabetical values). But why have those two different colour models?

Because of the way we can mix these colours.

Subtractive Colour Mixing

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) and is a subtractive colour system. This means that by mixing all three of these colours, the outcome will be black. And when something is black, physically talking, light has been taken away or “subtracted”. All of this might seem familiar because if you have a printer at home, you would usually buy CMYK ink partridges.

Photo of a printer

Printer | by Fernando Arcos via Pexels.com

Additive Colour Mixing

RGB is the exact opposite of subtractive colour mixing and is called *drum roll* additive colour mixing. RGB is short for red, green and blue and when you add all three together you get white light! It is worth mentioning that ‘light’ is purposely written here instead of colour, because this is the main difference between RGB and CMYK. Subtractive colour mixing usually happens when light shines on an object; whereas additive colour mixing is seen as the light sources shining on that object.

Think about this: We all know that screens are made of pixels and those pixels are made of ‘subpixels’, which are red, green and blue. A screen then produces the colours we see on it by lighting the three of them in different combinations. So the process of additive colour mixing actually takes places with the light that comes out of the pixels!

Hexadecimal values

All of the physical talk aside, the way a computer knows what colour a designer wants something to be is through hexadecimal values. These codes have been around since the 1980s and look like this:




When artists create works on Photoshop or even when editing blogs like this using CSS, the computer recognises a certain code to be a certain colour. Hexadecimal codes are a common and universal way to name colours digitally.

CSS on a laptop

CSS | by Negative Space via Pexels.com

Why is this important?

For (digital) artists, this is super important to understand because colours on one screen don’t necessarily look the same on another or even on print. So, having a universal code and ‘name’ for each colour makes is so much easier to let a printer (the machine and the person who actually prints it) know what colour exactly the artists wants their work to be. Companies like Pantone have even started to produce colour books just like Ridgway back in the day. They are now very popular among graphic, fashion and product designers.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that naming colours actually is arbitrary. While we do now know that there is a certain order in which we name colours, there is still no real explanation why red is called red, blue is called blue and so on. Think about this: Crayon occasionally holds colour naming competitions, the most recent one being in 2017. Pantone even chooses a “colour of the year” since 2000. And FYI, this year it’s called Living Coral or #FF6F61.

What do you think about the whole concept of naming colours? Do you find it fascinating too? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me!

What to read next?

HEX CODE for Dummies, tutvid (YouTube video)

From Oil Paint To Graphic Tablets, Donita-Anne Pascual

The Colour Sphere: A Professor’s Pivotal “Colour Space” Numbering System, Kurt Kohlstedt

The Surprising Pattern Behind Colour Names Around The World, Vox (YouTube video)