The NBS/ISCC Color System

The Universal Language of Color

At the heart of the NBS/ISCC system is a standardized set of color terms. The color space is sliced into fifteen hues such as "yellow", "greenish yellow", "yellowish green", and so forth. Within each slice, degrees of saturation and brightness are specified by modifiers such as "vivid", "dark", and "pale".

For example, here is the complete set of modifiers for the hue "purple". The color terms in this hue are "vivid purple", "dark purple", "light purplish gray", and so forth.

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white -ish white very pale very light brilliant
light gray light -ish gray pale, light grayish light vivid
medium gray -ish gray grayish moderate strong
dark gray dark -ish gray dark grayish dark deep
black -ish black blackish very dark very deep


The reference colors of the standardized language are called centroid colors. Because of non-linearities in our visual apparatus and irregularities in our natural-language system of color names, not every hue has the full complement of modifiers. There are in fact only 267 centroid colors. That is a good practical number, small enough to be easily learned but large enough to make the distinctions needed for many applications.

The Dictionary of Color Terms

Armed with the standardized language of color, the researchers at the National Bureau of Standards reviewed a number of color atlases and mapped their names onto the centroids. The result is a fascinating dictionary of color terms.

Ever wondered exactly what color London Fog was? Celestial yellow? Rembrandt's Madder? Ever needed a poetic name for a particular color? The dictionary of color terms is the place to go.

Each of the letters in the table below will bring up the list of color terms that start with it. Each such term is followed by the numbers of the centroid colors that have been assigned to it by one color atlas or another. Each number is linked to the full name and definition of the centroid.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

ColorCaller

I find color calibration on computers to be quite problematic - I follow the formulas, but the results never look right. My Macintosh program ColorCaller displays the entire set of centroid colors as faithfully as I know how - I translated the Munsell values to CIE XYZ values and then to QuickDraw RGB values.
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Internet Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
Mundie, David A.
    The NBS/ISCC Color System / David A. Mundie
    Pittsburgh, PA : Polymath Systems  1995
    535.6 dc-20
                                        [MARC]