The Experience of Color

Color is, first, a sensory event. Colors are true sensations, not abstractions or ideas. The beginning of every color experience is a physiological response to a stimulus of light. Colors are experienced in two very different ways.

The colors on a monitor screen are seen as direct light. The colors of the physical world — of printed pages, objects, and the environment — are seen as reflected light.

The perception of colored light is a straightforward experience: light reaches the eye directly from a light source. The experience of real-world color is a more complex event. Real-world colors are seen indirectly, as light refl ected from a surface. For tangible objects and printed pages, light is the cause of color, colorants (like paints or dyes) are the means used to generate color, and the colors that are seen are the effect.

All colors, whether they are seen as direct or reflected light, are unstable. Every change in light or medium has the potential to change the way a color is perceived. The color of a carpet underfoot is very different from that of its image on a screen, and each of these is different from its illustration on a printed page. In addition, the same color will appear to be different colors depending on its placement relative to other colors.

Not only are colors themselves unstable, ideas about colors are unstable as well. The color that one person identifi es as “true red” will be a bit different from another’s idea of “true red.” When colors are used as symbols, their meanings are equally mutable. A color used symbolically in one context may have another meaning entirely — and even be called by another name — when it appears in a different situation.

Most of the work of the design industries today is done in images of direct light, on a monitor, for products that will ultimately be produced as goods or printed pages. Are the screen image and the product the same color? Can they be the same color? Which one is the “true” color — the one on the screen, or the one that is the actual object? Is there such a thing as a “true” color at all?

Designers use color. Their concern is with effects, not with words, ideas, or causes. Understanding what is seen, and how and why it is seen — how colors work — is background knowledge that supports the art of color. Designers work with color every day in a comfort zone; a healthy mix of fact, common sense, and intuition. A skilled colorist exploits the instabilities of color and uses them to create interest and vitality in design.

We understand color in much the same way that we understand the shape of the earth. The earth is round, but we experience it as fl at, and act on it according to that practical perception of flatness. Color is light alone, but it is experienced so directly and powerfully that we think of it as a physical entity. No matter what we may understand about the science of color, or what color technology is available, we believe our eyes. Color problems in the design industries are solved with the human eye. Designers work with color from the evidence of their eyes.