Martha DiMeo on Color Perception and the Environment

Color Management–The Effect of Our Environment

by © Martha DiMeo 2013

There is a conversation around color management that is often met with much resistance and sometimes skepticism. If I told you the color of your walls affect the way you see color on your monitor would you believe me?

When I work with graphic designers to set up a color-managed workflow, the necessary changes that must be made to their offices and work spaces to create a color-friendly environment are not often well received. I fully understand why. Designers—as do I—love to work in sun-filled rooms with brightly colored walls. It’s inviting, friendly, and good for the spirit. Unfortunately, it is detrimental to our ability to accurately evaluate color. Let me explain—and show you—why.

How Our Eyes Trick Us

In the photo below, stare at the cross mark on the left-side of the image for 10–15 seconds. Now shift your gaze to the cross mark on the portrait. Magic! The yellow cast on the right-side of the face is gone and the two halves of the face blend together.

simultaneous-contrast-demo-martha-dimeo

Is it really magic? No, not magic, but rather a feature of the human visual system; an illusion called simultaneous contrast. If you would like to try it again, stare at something neutral—such as a piece of white paper—for a few seconds, and then begin the test again.

Simultaneous Contrast Defined

Simultaneous contrast as defined in the book Real World Color Management 2nd Edition (authors Bruce Fraser, Chris Murphy, Fred Bunting)—“The effect where the perception of a color is affected by other colors seen simultaneously in the same field of view causes you to perceive the opposite color of what you were just looking.”

In other words, when you stare at the blue and yellow stripes in the above photo, then move your gaze to the photograph, the cooler side of the face is perceived warmer, and the warmer side of the face is perceived cooler creating the illusion that the two sides of the face match.

Getting Back To The Color of Your Walls

If your office has brightly colored yellow walls for instance, when you move your gaze from the yellow walls to the photograph on your computer, it is going to look bluer, or cooler than it actually is. Moreover, you won’t know your visual system is playing a trick. As a result, you may think the photograph needs to be color–corrected. (Warmer flesh tones are usually more pleasing than cooler tones but that’s a topic for another time.)

The Solution

The solution is to paint the walls of any room where critical color work is performed a neutral gray. The industry standard is Neutral Gray N7/N8 paint from GTI Munsell. I do understand most graphic designers are just not going to do this.

Here’s the thing, if the focus of your work is layout and design and does not involve color-critical work then having brightly painted walls is fine. But, for designers who review, evaluate, and retouch photographs, or want to be precise with color selection for graphic elements, I advise two things. If you can’t live with gray walls, then at least paint them white. If white is not doable either, then be aware you cannot accurately review, evaluate, or edit color. Leave that task to a colleague or other trusted professional who is working in a color-managed, color-friendly environment. I can’t stress it enough— with anything other than neutral painted walls, your color perception is compromised.

Do You See What I See?

This is just the tip of the iceberg in implementing a color-managed workflow. The other major environmental factor is the lighting in your workspace (Remember I mentioned those sun-filled offices we all love? Not good.) If you are interested in having me cover other topics related to color management—lighting, display calibration, device profiling, image profiles, color spaces, application settings, capture to print color-managed workflow—drop me a line about the topics that are of most interest to you. I want to help you achieve consistent, predictable, and repeatable color.

Share This Cool Visual Illusion

Find this topic fascinating? You are welcome to download  the photo for personal or educational use. Share with colleagues, post on your site, or maybe even use it for interesting cocktail conversation.   I do ask, if you share the image online, a link back to ChromaQueen.com would be much appreciated.


This article by Digital Imaging Specialist Martha DiMeo was first published on her blog called The CQ Blog at www.ChromaQueen.com. 

Martha received a BS in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology and began her career as a photographer at Hallmark Cards, a freelance photographer, and worked for The New Yorker, FortuneMoney, and People magazines as a Digital Imaging Specialist. She began working with digital files in 1992 and was shooting digital images by 1994 when digital capture was in its infancy. Her first version of Photoshop was 2.5 and she’s been going strong ever since. Her company ChromaQueen.com is a photo editing services company that specializes in photo retouching, color correction, and print production for books, magazines, art publishers, marketing, and advertising clients.