Natural Color System

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The NCS color model is based on the three pairs of elementary colors (whiteblack, greenred, and yellowblue), as defined by color opponency.
The colors of the Swedish flag are officially established to be NCS 0580-Y10R for the shade of yellow, and NCS 4055-R95B for the shade of blue

The Natural Color System (NCS) is a proprietary perceptual color model. It is based on the color opponency hypothesis of color vision, first proposed by German physiologist Ewald Hering.[1] The current version of the NCS was developed by the Swedish Colour Centre Foundation, from 1964 onwards. The research team was Anders Hård, Lars Sivik and Gunnar Tonnquist, who in 1997 received the AIC Judd award for their work.[2][3] The system is based entirely on the phenomenology of human perception and not on colour mixing. It is illustrated by a colour atlas, marketed by NCS Colour AB in Stockholm.

The basics of NCS[edit]

The NCS states that there are six elementary color percepts of human vision — which might coincide with the psychological primaries — as proposed by the hypothesis of color opponency: white, black, red, yellow, green, and blue. The last four are also called unique hues. In the NCS all six are defined as elementary colours, irreducible qualia, each of which would be impossible to define in terms of the other elementary colours. All other experienced colors are considered composite perceptions, i.e. experiences that can be defined in terms of similarity to the six elementary colours. E.g. a saturated pink could be fully defined by its visual similarity to red, blue, black and white.

Colors in the NCS are defined by three values, expressed in percentages, specifying the degree of blackness (= relative visual similarity to the black elementary colour), chromaticness (= relative visual similarity to the "strongest", most saturated, colour you can think of), and hue (= relative similarity to two of the chromatic elementary colors red, yellow, green and blue, expressed in at most two percentages). No hue has visual similarity to both hues of an opponent pair; i.e. there is no "redgreen" or "yellowblue". The blackness and the chromaticness together add up to less than or equal to 100%—their remainder from 100%, if any, gives the amount of whiteness. The complete NCS color notations can also be tagged with a letter giving the version of the NCS color standard that was used to specify the color.

Two examples of NCS color notation—the yellow and blue shades of the Swedish flag:

  • Yellow – NCS 0580-Y10R (nuance = 5% blackness, 80% chromaticness, hue = 90% yellow + 10% red. Strong, very slightly blackish yellow with a slight orangish tinge)
  • Blue – NCS 4055-R95B (nuance = 40% blackness, 55% chromaticness, hue = 5% red + 95% blue. Somewhat dark, medium strong blue with a very slight purplish tinge)

The NCS is represented in 19 countries and is the reference norm for color designation in Sweden (since 1979), Norway (since 1984) and Spain (since 1994). It is also one of the standards used by the International Colour Authority, a leading publisher of color trend forecasts for the interior design and textile markets.

Comparisons to other colour systems[edit]

The most important difference between NCS and most other colour systems resides in their starting points. The aim of NCS is to define colours from their visual appearance, as they are experienced by human consciousness. Other colour models, such as CMYK and RGB, are based on an understanding of physical processes, how colours can be achieved or "made" in different media.[4]

The underlying physiological mechanisms involved in color opponency include the bipolar and ganglion cells in the retina, which process the signal originated by the retinal cones before it is sent to the brain. Models like RGB are based on what happens at the lower, retinal cone level, and thus are fitted for presenting self-illuminated, dynamic images as done by TV sets and computer displays; see additive color. The NCS model, for its part, describes the organization of the color sensations as perceived at the upper, brain level, and thus is much better fitted than RGB to deal with how humans experience and describe[clarification needed] their color sensations (hence the "natural" part of its name); but it would be useless, for example, for describing the behavior of mixing lights and pigments.

Colorimetrist Jan Koenderink, in a critique of Hering's system, considered it inconsistent not to apply the same argument to the other two subtractive primaries, cyan and magenta, and see them as unique hues, not a "greenblue" or a "redblue". He also pointed out the difficulty within a four color theory that the primaries would not be equally spaced in the color circle; and the problem that Hering does not account for the fact that cyan and magenta are brighter than green, blue and red. He concluded that Hering's scheme fitted common language better than color experience.[5]

Overview of the six base colors in Natural Color System with their equivalent in hex triplet, RGB and HSV coordinates systems.

Color Hex triplet RGB HSV
White #FFFFFF (255,255,255) (-°, 0%, 100%)
Black #000000 (0,0,0) (-°, -%, 0%)
Green #009F6B (0, 159, 107) (160°, 100%, 63%)
Red #C40233 (196,2,51) (345°, 99%, 77%)
Yellow #FFD300 (255, 211, 0) (50°, 100%, 100%)
Blue #0087BD (0, 135, 189) (197°, 100%, 74%)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hering, Ewald (1964) [1878, Zur Lehre vom Lichtsinne, Wien]. Hurvich, L.M.; Jameson, D., eds. Outlines of a Theory of the light sense. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. 
  2. ^ Hård, A.; Sivik, L.; Tonnquist, G. (1996). "NCS Natural Color System - from Concepts to Research and Applications. Part I and II.". Color Research And Application 21: 180–220. 
  3. ^ "International Colour Association". 
  4. ^ Green-Armytage, Paul (2006). "The Value of Knowledge for Color Design". Color Research and Application (31:4): 253-269. 
  5. ^ Jan J. Koenderink, 2010, Color for the Sciences, The MIT Press, p. 579–582

External links[edit]