Surround yourself with color. As long as it's gray!

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Pink is not the new black. Black is the new black. I love good black and white photography. And a nice neutral gray goes with just about anything.

But I also love to put rich color on walls. I love the warm, golden amber-red colors of sunsets, and cool, crisp deep hues of lush green forests. I like teal. Teal is like a blue that wanted to be green, but it stopped halfway there. Probably because it heard Kermit the Frog sing, "It's not easy being green." .

Color is personal. It's an important thing to surround yourself with the colors that make you feel good. Except when looking at color. And by color, I mean color proofs, prints, samples, swatches, etc...

If you have a job that requires you to make critical color judgments, such as comparing proofs to a product sample, press sheet or color swatches, or simply choosing a color from a swatchbook, then you should have a dedicated area without other colors to distract your eye. The surfaces of that area can be made up of any color you want, as long as it's neutral gray. 

Last year, I posted a blog on the importance of viewing conditions, specifically pertaining to the color temperature of the light used to view color (see Color Communication 101 from July 9, 2008). The surrounding environment you view color in is just as important as the color of the light used to view color.

The international standard ISO 3664:1974, Viewing Conditions - Prints, transparencies and substrates for graphic arts technology and photography, specifies characteristics of how color should be viewed. Among the points this standard makes is:

  • Bright colors on furniture or clothing should be avoided as they will cause a color cast
  • All surfaces surrounding the viewing area should be neutral gray in color with a reflectance of 60% or less (Munsell N8)

You can add that the viewing area should be clear of clutter. Any other colors in your field of view will impact how you view color.

Where do you view color? Okay, okay, I'll come clean. I did open up a big-old can of artistic license to the image you see here on the left. I added a few items to the light booth for illustration purposes. But I have been places that do not look too far from that. The more colors you see around the color that counts, the larger your room for error is. Color reproduction is difficult enough without all the other colors influencing your decisions. Do yourself a favor and cut the clutter.

There is a great website that is filled with amazing optical illusions. It has some great interactive exercises that really prove the point that surrounding color plays an important role in your color perception. Specifically check out the illusions called Color Perception and Color Perception2. There is also some other fun illusions that you may have seen before.

It seems impossible that the blue squares on top of the cube to the left are the same color as the yellow squares on the cube to the right. But closer inspection reveals that the squares from both images are in fact gray - equal values of red, green, and blue.

Another common illusion that seems hard to believe... Square A and square B are actually the same value of gray. They are identical, but our brain tells us this can't be true because of the placement of the squares and the surrounding colors. This illustration also proves that you should never evaluate color next to a giant green cylinder. Check out these and other interactive optical illusions.

When viewing color and making critical color decisions, it is important for the success of your project to keep the viewing area neutral and clear. And only wear gray clothes that comply with ISO 3644:1974 - Munsell N8... Okay, you don't have to necessarily be that meticulous . But keep in mind if you are looking at color proofs while wearing a shirt with bright red sleeves, it can influence your color perception. And while you're at it,  take off those rose-colored glasses. 

Topics: Creative

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