… not what truly is.

Colors in context are a great example. They visually shift and fluctuate, in an ever moving dance with the colors and light around them.

My favorite illusion proving this was designed by Edward H. Adelson of Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here it is: (click image to see larger version)

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Square A and Square B are the same shade of gray, the same color. Oh yes they are!

I can’t see it, either: my mind cannot reconcile the fact that they are exactly the same, because B is the lighter square, even though it’s in shadow (so my mind tells me).

Here’s proof that they are the same. I covered up the surrounding area– the context. Now it’s easy to see that they are the same (click image to see larger version).

A dear friend and her husband run a commercial & residential painting company. They tell me great color and people stories. One of my favorite, and a frequently occurring one, is the client who looks at two different walls painted in the same color and vehemently accuses their company of using two different paint colors. Because walls in a room face different directions and they receive light differently: one may be in more shade, the sun may be setting casting a very bluish or pinkish light on the other wall. Several factors may be involved. But the paint on each wall came from the same can. Its the same color.

We have a lot of fun in my color classes debating which color is lighter, darker, more intense, less intense. Its a bit easier for us to answer those questions because for the most part we are comparing swatches of flat color to each other in the same light. They aren’t any rigid context, like these checkerboard squares.

I share this issue with you to remind you that when you are dealing with color: COLOR IS RELATIVE. The color you think you see is relative to the colors surrounding it, the atmosphere, the lighting…many factors. You see what you think you see, not what truly is.

Being conscious of this empowers you to make more conscious, informed color choices.

For an in-depth explanation of the fascinating subject of metamerism, read the May 2007 Margie’s Muse: “Metamerism in Action.”