The Eyes Have It: Keeping the Faith

December 15, 2016


People tend to trust their eyes. An HOA that is finally being painted called me to check samples, and perhaps, make changes. The property is a run of thirteen very large A-frame houses in a gated community atop a hill; they currently alternate between pale earthy yellow and pale earthy creamsickle.   Our design has greater variation in both hue and value, earthy still yet modern, so the houses cease to be a horizontal monolith but will appear to vary in size and depth.

Homeowners objected to some of the colors because they did not look identical to the presentation boards I delivered at the end of the original color selection process. The samples were painted ninety degrees to the facades, on one wall, and at the same horizontal level: i.e. each successive sample was farther toward the back of the building. Rolling Stone looks grey and dark and lacks the complex green of the chip, he reported.  He took the paint back, had it reformulated and tested it on the chip, where it matched perfectly. The color did indeed look greyer and darkish on the building.  I pointed out that the sample was not only going back in space, but more importantly, was opposite a giant  orange wall.  While we were talking the sun passed over and the color flashed its original green. It will be fine, I assured him.


If you ask someone what color is the person will likely respond with something about frequencies, absorption/reflection, and a nod to black bodies. When I studied with the International Association of Color Consultants,  Frank Mahnke defined color as “sensory perception.” Color is always relative, as I have stated many times. Relative to what? The most obvious is to other colors. In the case of our Rolling Stone, at least two phenomena occurred that changed the rendering of the color. First, the sample was painted on the yellow building. Yellow makes any neutralized color appear greyer. This is a demonstration of relative contrast. (Complementary colors also bring each other out; purples make yellows appear more yellow, for example, etc.) Second, the sample was painted opposite an orange wall; any light, direct or ambient, will bounce off one surface and reflect color onto others, like overlaying a gel. Reds and oranges neutralize green: i.e. make it look grey.  It is as if the orange light had mixed with Rolling Stone in a bucket, exemplifying the reductive properties of color. The homeowner asked me to select a greener color to sample, which I did, with  a caveat:  the sample will satisfy the homeowners who originally selected the color, because it will look more like their presentation board, but it will ultimately look too green and our design will suffer. Better to resample on the facades before making an assessment. (They did this and the colors were approved.)


There is a reason presentation boards are grey. A true, middle-tone grey will more or less control for  relativity: that is to say,  you will see the colors relative to one another only, as the design intends, with extraneous information removed. We often use renderings/drawings or presentation boards to communicate the effect of a color design. It is important for the client to remember that these are tools and representations only. I strive very hard to color match my digital renderings, for example. Pitfalls remain. One I described above, where a presentation board does not mirror what is happening to a real life sample, but rather presents what will happen.  This is hard for the layperson to understand.


Color is  a function of light and surface. For example, a digital rendering uses illuminated light (from the monitor) instead of reflected light, which is what happens when you perceive paint on a chip or  building.  Even the best 3d renderings have a glowing artificiality about them that does not quite communicate reality,  because light is not truly being absorbed or reflected. I have chosen to make my renderings more painterly for this reason, a combination of photo-realism and pastel drawing.

Color changes under different lighting conditions.  Exposure, therefore, also determines perception. Just as the adjacent building threw orange light onto the samples, a color in Eastern light will look completely different on a North-facing facade. The ideal and most successful approach is to design color on site under actual lighting conditions. There is no color without surface. Salty Brine in the same sheen looks different on wood, stucco, and a piece of foam core. (Of course, Salty Brine also looks different in different sheens.) For example, the rougher the surface, the darker the color will look. This is why, particularly for exteriors, it is mandatory to sample. It is not a question of whether the color is correct but rather, do you like the color on the surface? The two are inseparable.


Scale effects perception. The most common mistake I see people make is to choose colors that are too light. This applies to both interiors and exteriors. The greater the surface area, the lighter a color looks. Outside this is amplified because daylight can be up to four hundred times brighter than any interior light source. I once had a painter detail me on his method for addressing  all this: he explained that he would darken or lighten a color he wanted to use based on its application: for example, floor, interior wall, exterior corner building, etc. (This struck me as strange coming from a painter, since changing colorant ratio can effect performance. ) I explained that I select a color  anticipating how it will look; in other words, I extrapolate.  I do not need to manipulate a color but  simply choose the correct one from the outset.


This extrapolation applies to light, scale,  surface, and effect, the whole of color design. It is an ability forged by my training as a printmaker and honed by many years of experience at this particular craft, and, an understanding of the properties of color. This is not to say that I am not surprised by outcomes from time to time, but in general, I know what a color or design will do. I am passionate about aesthetics but adamant about efficiency too.

I have a friend who is a professional physicist. We joke that people  always talk to me about color because it is part of their daily lives and they have a sense of understanding it; physics is also a part of our daily lives  but no one dares engage him in conversation! Even though I am hired for my expertise I sometimes meet resistance, mostly incredulity. I might repeat over and over that a color someone prefers to my selection is too light, too bright, too this, too that for the application or desired effect. We might stare at it together before the job  gets started (or repainted!) and the client will confide, “I had to see it to believe it.”



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