Color Constancy?

Color Constancy or Subjective Constancy is the term we use to describe that part of the our color perception that ensures the perceived color of objects remains relatively constant under different lighting conditions

In our world, the appearance of color provides us enough information to reliably identify an object. For example, we know instinctively that bananas are yellow. But, are they still yellow in the evening where there is no natural light? Yes and no.  If we compared an image of both side by side we can clearly observe that the same bananas appear to be different in the morning light than the evening light. But that’s not what our brain tells us! Our brain overrides the visual cue to let us know that the banana is still yellow. It calculates the lighting conditions and the angles to let us know that the banana is now in ambient light and possibly in shadow so although it may look gray, it really is yellow. Our brains are amazing, right?

So you are probably asking, “What does that have to do with paint color?” Well, a lot. In my practice, the majority of colors I specify are either complex colors or full-spectrum colors And, although there is no industry standard on the definition of this terminology, the accepted standard is that complex colors contain 4-5 tints in its formulation and full spectrum colors have 6+ tints in their formulation with the exception of black. So why is that important? Because the combination of multiple tints in each can of paint influences the degree of observational change in color from morning to evening. What may start as a warm sunny yellow room in the morning turns to a warm peach in the evening. Many designers and color consultants are afraid of this phenomenon because it seems difficult if not impossible to predict the outcome! “If the wall is constantly changing color, how will I know it will work at different times of the day?”

macadamia/blue  Macadamia

The above photos of a project I did for a client that lived on the lake with a panoramic view. Each was taken at a different time of day. Note the wall on the left looks blue (and even gray near the artwork) and the wall on the right is a warm beige with yellow undertones. Even the floor color looks different. Yet the client always sees the walls as the same original color! to them there is no change.

Understanding the human visual system and subjective constancy means that if your paint color works in the day time it will also work in the evening. Remember that the paint color isn’t the only thing changing throughout the day! The furniture, artwork, even the perception of the architecture will change with the different light conditions. Shadows will appear and objects will change color. Color constancy takes over and soon we experience our wall color to be the same in the morning as it is at night. Our brains adjust so we no longer see a difference in color but accept the fact that the wall is only one color, just like the bananas.

Here’s a fun fact; Did you know that if you wear your sunglasses long enough, eventually you will no longer view the world with tinted lenses. Your brain becomes accustomed to the alteration and sends signals that there is no change in colors. Yep, that’s an example of subjective constancy.

In the end, don’t be afraid to use those beautiful complex and full-spectrum colors in your color palette, they will always be beautiful no matter what the light says!

Teresa Tullio is an architectural color consultant and author of ColorIQ certification program for color professionals.

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