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A Study in Scarlet, and green and blue

silver jub prussian blue.JPG
cobalt blue.JPG
gv prussian blue.JPG

Colour, like beauty, is in the eye of beholder.

That is all very well, but not much use you don’t know your deep reddish purple from your dull purplish red, or Bright Green from Deep Bright Green.

But colour, and shade, is key in philately and can turn a 10p stamp into a £10,000 one.

What  does not help is that the way a colour is described is not consistent. The names

have evolved over time so we now have the situation that the famous GB Queen

Victoria 10/- Cobalt blue (right) looks nothing like the colour of the George V simple

cypher 21/2d Cobalt. 

For that matter, as shown here, the simple cypher 21/2d described as Prussian Blue is a

beast of a very different hue from the famous Silver Jubilee Prussian Blue:






The problem is we are using words to describe something where a more scientific approach is required,  but we have to remember there is also a big difference between how your eye sees a colour, which is to do with light, and how printers make a colour, which is due to mixing ink.

They are opposite things.

In your eyes, you've got photosensitive cells which detect reddish, greenish and bluish light. So, if you mix red light and green light your eye thinks it is looking at yellow. The clever thing is that by mixing red, green and blue light, you can make any colour depending how much of each of the primary colour there is. Use all the colours equally and you get white - or white light as it is called.

However, if  pure white light it is shining down on a piece of red paper all that comes back is the red light and all you see red. The paper has absorbed all the other colours, reflecting the red, so your eye sees what is not absorbed by the object.

But that is not how printing works. Here we make colours by mixing ink, or dyes, not light. Again there are three basic colours -  cyan which is greenish-blue, magenta which is a purplish-red, and yellow. Mix all three light colours together and you get white. Mix all three ink colours (cyan, magenta and yellow) together and you get black. You see, they are doing opposite things - with light it is what is reflected OFF the paper, with printing it is what you put ON the paper. You may have noticed using a home printer that last bit is not quite right. Instead of black you get dark grey but that is due to impurities in the ink, very pure ink will give you a very pure black.

Now, something may have occurred to you: if there are only three primary colours in printing - cyan, magenta and yellow – from which you can make all colours, instead of worrying about what we can see (all our eyes are different) and using terms such as Prussian Blue, or Blood Red, or  Sage Green why not just say how much of each of the three ink primary colours there is in the colour you are describing?

That is how professionals work. They used to use things called Pantone Colours. The chart is like that you get from a paint company but instead of names they use numbers which describe how much cyan, magenta, yellow and in Pantone’s case black, there is. Nowadays Pantone has rivals in the shape of  other trademarked products such as RAL, but the idea is the same.

Using RAL, oyster white is 234-230-202, bright red orange is 247-094-037 and sky blue is 034-113-179. The numbers refer to the proportion of yellow, magenta and cyan is mixed to make each colour.

So in philately, instead of using daft descriptions why not use the same method? Well the reason was that the equipment to do it was pretty expensive but that is not the case anymore. You can download several for free, such as colorpix pallet:

After it is downloaded, there is a tutorial on how to use it and there are several on YouTube such as this one:

Now, scan in a stamp and have a play. One of the problems is that stamps have few parts which are solid colour but that is not insurmountable. A bigger obstacle is that there would need to be standard computer settings.


If we could all agree on that the problem of 'What shade is my stamp?' could be solved. 

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