Color Perception

At X‑Rite, we're constantly researching color and appearance, so we have the expertise to help your business with color problems. One of the hot color topics that we've identified is color perception, and what we've discovered may surprise you.

Although your brain and eyes are working together to show you color as you know it, they're actually denying you visibility into reality. This cool optical illusion from Beau Lotto illustrates how your brain can – and will – give you completely wrong color information without your consent.

Would you believe it if I told you these two gray tiles are actually the same color? Watch as the image is masked.


Hover over the image to the left.

◂ PICTURED: Images courtesy of Beau Lotto.
Visit his website to see other illusions that will make you question the trustworthiness of your brain.

The colors are identical. In this illusion, your brain subconsciously factored in a light source and mentally corrected the color on the bottom as shadowed because of the way the tiles are positioned.

Your brain's deception is not intentional. Since it is busy managing vast amounts of information, it often calls on your surroundings and past experiences for help perceiving color. This can have a significant impact on manufacturers who need to be sure the color they produce is the color they are supposed to be producing.

Read on as we explain why these perception inconsistencies occur, and how color measurement technology can help you overcome them.

1. Light

If you saw this car on the street, you'd probably say it's red. While you'd be right, the actual shade of red will change throughout the day. Watch.


As odd as it sounds, the car itself doesn't have a color. It is coated with colorants that have properties to absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light. It's the mixture of the reflected light that enters our eyes to tell us this car is red. Since these different wavelengths change based on the source of light, the color of the car appears to change, too.

Manufacturers try to avoid these color inconsistencies by using light booths to simulate how their products will appear during all lighting conditions. If a product is to be sold at a store under cool white fluorescent light, then used at home under incandescent and daylight, it must be evaluated under each of those conditions to make sure the color remains true.

Incandescent (A) Daylight (D65) Cool White Fluorescent (CWF)

Lightbooth Lighting Conditions

▴ PICTURED: These plates were photographed inside X‑Rite's SpectraLight QC under three different light sources. See how their appearance changes?

2. Objects

To make things even more complicated, not all objects absorb and reflect light the same way. The object's material and colorant ultimately determine which colors of light are absorbed, and which are reflected into your eyes as color.

Take the red car, for example. If the same color red was applied to the plastic bumpers, metal panels, cloth seats, and plastic dashboard, the car will look like a mismatched mess. Each type of material has a different reflectance value, which changes the color we see.

Red Car Interior

This is an important consideration for manufacturers. When producing parts that will be assembled or seen together, each type of material must be considered and measured separately.

3. Memory

If the above is true, you might be wondering why you haven't noticed color shifts in everyday objects. You're not alone! Thanks to memory, our brains have learned how things should look, and it automatically apply this knowledge to everything we see.

To ensure they are communicating and evaluating the right color, manufacturers rely on color measurement instruments like spectrophotometers to capture accurate color numbers.


Whether your job demands color accurate decisions or you're just curious, read more about color perception on our blog, or check out our Fundamentals of Color and Appearance seminar for the full scoop.

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