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Color Basics: 8 Things You Need to Know if You Work with Color

Color is one way that we understand and navigate the world around us. For those who work with color every day, it’s important to understand how we see and describe colors, how to sample colors, and how to ensure consistent color in commercial production.

Below are eight concepts that anyone who manages color needs to keep in mind.

(Each of these—and more—are covered extensively in our 5-part e-book!)

1) Color and Appearance Aren’t the Same

Color is an aspect of appearance. “Color” refers to our visual perception of different wavelengths of light, whereas “appearance” encompasses various visual attributes other than color like texture, gloss, opacity and luminosity. That means even if an object contains the same pigment or dye recipe, it might appear different if other properties of appearance are inconsistent.

2) Color is a Function of Our Eyes and Brain

The visible color spectrum is comprised of light of various wavelengths. Cones are the photoreceptors in our eyes that are sensitive to red, blue, and green wavelengths and allow us to see in color.

The color of an object depends upon how it absorbs and reflects different wavelengths of light. However, the colors we see are subjective and based on a number of factors – which means color perception may differ from person to person. Various environmental, biological, and physiological factors can subtly affect our perception. These factors are explained in a series of blogs:

light object observer

3) We Classify Colors According to Common Characteristics

Even a young child can identify the color red. But how do we communicate specific shades within that “red” category? There is fire engine red, poppy red, crimson red, etc., and there are many ways to describe the same shade of color.

If you read the blogs listed above, you learned that numerous factors affect and shape our color language. So what common language can we use to better describe the color we envision? And how can we show the relationship of one color to another?

Tests have determined that observers tend to organize colors according to 3 properties:

  • Dominant color (hue)
  • Intensity of the color (chroma)
  • Lightness of the color (lightness)

From these properties, classification systems have been developed to define and organize the visible spectrum. One of the first, the Munsell color atlas, was published in 1915 and is still in use today, along with several other specialized systems.

Munsell Illustration

4) Color Consistency Implies Quality

No matter the source of the color standard we’re trying to replicate, our attempts to match colors subjectively (using our eyesight alone) will be imprecise. This can a problem for businesses because inconsistent colors can impact brand perception.

Digital color management tools can improve color accuracy and streamline color workflows to save time, money and resources while improving overall perceived product quality among consumers.

5) Colorimetry Quantifies Color Measurement

The experience of color requires 3 components:

  • A light source
  • An object
  • An observer

To match and reproduce colors accurately and objectively, these physical factors need to be described numerically. That exercise is the science of colorimetry.

To numerically describe color accurately, your light source must be standardized so that it is reproducible, and the characteristics of the object need to be measured and depicted as reflectance and transmittance curves. Then an “observer” differentiates the length of red, green, and blue light waves to numerically represent color.

Datacolor spectrophotometers and accompanying color control software help users achieve this.

reflectance curve

6) Delta E is Used to Determine “Acceptable Colors”

While color consistency is a quality indicator for many products, the degree to which color needs to match is a business decision. In many cases, customers expect visually perfect color matching—especially with high-end products. But for some industries, barely perceptible color variations are perfectly acceptable.

In the CIELAB color space (as defined by the International Commission on Illumination where L = lightness, a = the distance between red/green, and b = distance between yellow/blue), the deviation between two colors is described as dE, or Delta E. It can be calculated with LCh or Lab color coordinate values. But mathematical differences don’t always perfectly align with human perception since we detect color based on hue, chroma, and lightness.

Book four of our eBook series demonstrates the formulas for determining color differences and discusses color tolerances in detail.

7) Two Types of Instruments Are Used to Measure Color

The 2 categories of color measurement instruments are:

  • Tristimulus colorimeters
    These simple, relatively inexpensive instruments provide tristimulus values for one light and one observer condition. They’re often used for quality control purposes, but can’t be used to calculate color formulas.
  • Spectrophotometers
    These instruments measure light reflected or transmitted across the visible spectrum and compare it to reference samples. They provide spectral data that can be used to calculate tristimulus values for various conditions and calculate color recipes for commercial color matching.

Learn more about the different types of color measurement instruments.


8) Proper Sample Preparation is Critical

No matter what instrument you use to measure color, your samples must be properly prepared for measurements to be accurate, consistent and reproducible. This requires that every possible variable in the process be controlled including factors like the humidity level, temperature, light, opacity and thickness of the sample being measured.

Develop and document your procedures, continue learning, be sure samples are representative, clean and properly conditioned, and you are well on your way to an optimized color management program!

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