We’ve all been there. We fall in love with a beautiful item in a store, and the color is perfect. But then we get it home, put it in its intended spot or try it on again, and the result? Not so perfect. Other times you look at it a week later and think, “Was that always so bright?” It is frustrating to feel like the color is changing before your eyes. Don’t worry. You’re not going crazy, and you don’t need to schedule an eye exam — color changes.
But why? Why does a color appear to change from room to room? Why does it look like one shade in the store and another once you get home? There are a lot of variables when it comes to how our eyes see color. Knowing these ahead of time will save you a lot of time and heartbreak when you’re making color choices for your next project.
Here are three factors to keep in mind about how color works and why color changes.
All light sources are not the same. As incandescent bulbs are phasing out, LED bulbs are taking their place, and their colors can vary dramatically from a very warm white light to a very cool white light. Think all white light is the same? The difference can be surprising. A cool white can feel almost blue, especially in a room with a lot of white. Since light in showrooms and stores is usually different from what you have at home, see if you can find a window to see the color in natural light. Stores may also have various light sources besides their overhead lights. Maybe there is a desk on display with a reading lamp, try that as a light source.
Light also has a habit of fading color. Items placed in rooms that have consistent sources of natural light will fade slowly over time. The color will likely lose some vibrancy if exposed to prolonged light exposure.
When you are designing and approving color for production, remember to visually evaluate the sample under all lighting conditions your design might appear in. A light booth (also called a light box) can help simulate different lighting conditions. This will help you identify any color issues and correct them before final production or assembly. This is especially important if your design requires different types of materials or suppliers.
The environment can play a significant role in how our eyes see color. Colors look vastly different depending on the colors surrounding them. “In visual perception, a thing is never seen as it really is,” wrote Josef Albers in his landmark book Interaction of Color. Albers writes that colors are only understood in relation to the colors that surround them. Looking at colors in different pairings will lead to shockingly different perceptions of that one color.
For example, you may fall in love with a pink pillow displayed on a white couch and resting against a yellow throw. That same pink pillow will look very different on your dark grey couch with an indigo throw. You always want to try and look at the item you’re considering on its own or next to colors similar to where it will be. Find a grey couch in the showroom and look at that pink pillow again, do you still love it?
This may seem like basic advice but make your design colors work together. If you are looking at swatches, place them next to each other. Do they still work?
Color also has psychological effects on people and can influence their mood and behavior. Likewise, while we may not like to admit it, our mood can impact our color preferences. The third rainy day in a row may have you drawn to a particular palette, while the first sunny day after that stretch of rain will pull you in a different direction. If you need someone else’s opinion on your color choice, keep in mind that if they’re super grumpy, it’s probably not the right time to ask.
In addition to mood, there are a number of other factors that can impact how we perceive color. If you are tired, have been staring at a computer screen for hours, or had an alcoholic drink, your vision will be impacted. It’s important to know these factors as you select, evaluate, and approve the color.
You can rest easy knowing that color does change, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful, magical, and a constant source of inspiration for designers and artists alike. When it comes to producing your designs remember to consider environmental factors, lighting, and color perception. This will streamline production issues.