Wednesday 7 May 2014

Colour - Standards and Nomenclature

A colour nomenclature for birders

I have spent a number of weeks researching and attempting (ultimately unsuccessfully) to bring an old colour standard and nomenclature to life on the internet.  Note I removed earlier postings on the topic from the blog to avoid confusion.  Here is a brief summary.

Robert Ridgway's Color Standards and Color Nomenclature (1912) is, on the face of it, the most appropriate colour standard for birding.  It was produced with naturalists, particularly ornithologists in mind.  Unfortunately the standard was not well preserved and as Hamly (1949) illustrated the standard has been in decline for many years.

Firstly on the point of nomenclature.  Why do we need it?  The MUNSELL COLOUR STANDARD is one of the most well known and successful colour standards yet the colours within it are not specifically named.  This is a reasonable point, however on the other hand a great many bird names contain reference to unusual colours which I would guess most birders would struggle to accurately describe.  

Take for example colours like buff, ferruginous, russet, tawny, cerulean and vinaceous.  Ridgway used these terms in his colour standard.  If we all had access to the standard we could begin to reflect upon and learn these colours, and they would hopefully return to common usage, which is the true essence of any standard.

Unfortunately, after numerous attempts I decided to call a halt to my efforts to bring Ridgway's colours to the internet.  Ultimately, my undoing came with the realisation that Ridgway's standard was too broad to fit within the constraints of the internet colour pallet (termed sRGB colour space).

This brings me to the question of the colour standard which we adopt.  Here, online we have no choice.  The colour standard for the foreseeable future is sRGB.  So, what does that mean in reality.  For most, practical purposes we are not too constrained by this standard.  Our cameras, printers and scanners all use this standard so we have continuity.  Some, mainly highly saturated colours cannot be displayed on the internet but when it comes to ID purposes that may not be too big an issue.  The elephant in the room of course is the great difficulty involved in accurately capturing and maintaining colour accuracy from life, through the lens, sensor, processor and internet to your computer screen and mine.  If we are going to benefit at all from the internet we need to work smart, work hard, and compromise a bit. I am currently working on a project to try and develop a method to colour code Chiffchaff images which will hopefully tie all of my efforts on colour together.

Hamly D. H. 1949.  The Ridgway Color Standards with a Munsell Notation Key.  Journal of the Optical Society of America.  Vol. 39, No. 7

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