A Nerdy Artist On Why No One Agrees On The Color Of This Dress

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A dress? Seriously, what’s all the fuss about? This is my response to wired.com’s ridiculous article, “The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress”.

Color Fuss

I think the only thing people like more than thinking about themselves is arguing about things. The internet has become a global water cooler in which folks love to incite drama and wired.com’s polarizing blue dress article is no exception. So what exactly is happening here? Why are people arguing?


Quantifying a Blue Black Dress

The problem all viewers of the white/gold dress, blue/black dress stem from limitations with our language. It’s not a vision or color problem; it’s a language problem. Our common, everyday language lacks the capacity to describe color adequately. Let’s look at a parallel example.

Three dimensional objects exist in three dimensions.   We can begin to define them by their length, width, and depth right?   Of course there are other properties that objects can exhibit but let’s keep things simple. In fact let’s focus on one of the simplest three-dimensional objects…the cube. If we wanted to give an accurate description of the cube to somebody we could very well describe it according to the cube’s length property, width property, and height property. Okay great. We measure the dimensions of the cube and we have begun to accurately describe it.

Very few people would argue with the previous example. Once we know the cube’s dimensions we are all in agreement. So why is everyone arguing about this blue dress? At the time of this writing there are 2318 comments at the bottom of the white-gold, ehem I mean blue-black dress’s post! And let me tell you, the comments are not all peaches and cream. It has almost reached a state of brawl down there in the comments section where people have resorted to insults and have gotten emotional. One glance in the comments section makes me feel like I’m surrounded by moronic sports fans arguing over their favorite group of dumb-dumbs.


The Problem with Blue

Taking the previous points about accurately describing a cube back to accurately describing the Bodycon dress we quickly realize the problem. Our everyday language lacks the capacity to describe the many colors that we see! The screen you are reading this on (thanks for reading by the way) has the capacity to display millions of colors; typically 16,777,216 but who’s counting? Yet, we insist on describing colors with language such as “blue”, “black”, “white”, “red” and so on. Merchants come up with other snazzy color names, really just as a marketing ploy to sell you things, but they invent color names such as “periwinkle”, “salmon”, “sea foam”, etc. Cute, but still not too helpful. We need some color help!


Color Properties

Like the 3 dimensions of the cube, color also has 3 dimensions; lets call them properties. These color properties help us describe the color we are seeing. These properties include a color’s hue, value, and saturation. Next month I’ll be releasing 4 posts that take a really in-depth look at color and how to get better understanding of it in your artwork but for now I’ll simply define the color properties:

  • Hue – Describes where a color is on a color wheel (it’s a light wavelength thang)
  • Value- Describes how light or dark a color is
  • Saturation – Describes how pure a color is (dull color is not saturated)

Once we have an understanding of the three properties of color we can begin to calibrate our language to better describe the colors that are used in the dress.   Take the sample color swatches below:

A Nerdy Artist On Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress | HelloaArtsy.com

Swatch A is pure blue according to the Adobe Illustrator software I used to create it. That’s easy enough because it is a very saturated blue. Now check out the other blue swatches and keep the dress in mind. Swatch B is the same exact blue but with a significant amount of white added to the blue. An artist would say that we lightened the value of the blue. Swatch C is has precisely the opposite effect occurring with the blue’s value. Black has been added to swatch C making it darker in value. Swatch D is the color that gives most people trouble artists included and is precisely where most people have trouble describing the color. Swatch D has both white and black added to the blue color thereby reducing the blue’s saturation. Regardless of what we have done here we are still working with blue! How many people would probably argue over which one of these swatches is blue?


Calibrating Our Language

Here’s how a seasoned artist would describe the sample blues above according to the 3 properties of color:

Sample A: An extremely saturated blue hue that is of a medium value.

Sample B: A lightened value of blue.

Sample C: A darkened value of blue.

Sample D: A desaturated blue that is of a medium value.


The Problem with Saturation

Big problems arise when we try to describe colors that are not very saturated. That is one of the problems occurring with the darker stripes in the dress. When a color lacks saturation it is lacking an identifiable hue. Unfortunately hue is largely what gives a color its name so there in a nutshell is what the internet world is arguing about.

It’s a dual problem because the less saturated a color becomes the more likely it is to be influenced by the light sources that allow us to see it in the first place. In the original article the neuroscientist Bevil Conway goes on to say:

That chromatic axis varies from the pinkish red of dawn, up through the blue-white of noontime, and then back down to reddish twilight.

What he means here is simply that a given light source has an impact on your subject matter. Have you ever watched a blue house turn gray during a sunset?  How about a white building turning orange during sunset? It’s an awesome display of light science at work! Another one of my favorite effects is how white paper, indoors placed near a window will appear blue if it is exposed to the blue sky and not the sun.


Gold Is Not A Color

As a painter I never think of gold as a color but rather an expensive piece of metal that easily reflects light rays in the yellow to yellow-orange spectrum. With an understanding like that I am prepared to see any gold metal appear green because it may very well be reflecting something blue such as the sky.  See if you can figure that one out.

Check out the swatches below. Each one is of a yellow-orange hue and has been manipulated to change the value and saturation just like the blue colors above.

A Nerdy Artist On Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress | HelloaArtsy.com

Are we still arguing about that dress?


What Color Is It Really?

But how do I know that the yellow-orange you are referring to is the exact yellow-orange I am thinking about?

This is precisely the problem designers, illustrators or any individual serious about quantifying color faced many years ago. Fed up and looking for more quantitative solutions without the qualitative bantering we now have going one over this blue/white dress, Albert Henry Munsell began his journey into the world of color quantification. He refined his system over time and the Munsell system is still in use by artists around the globe today. In fact many of my tubes of acrylic and oil paint use the Munsell system for describing the colors contained within.

So as not to be further confused by whether a blue dress is blue or not, other methods of quantifying color have become popular as well. One of the most widely used systems of color quantification used today is the Pantone system. Pantone has been extremely successful in cultivating color enthusiasts and even goes so far as to name a color of the year. Pantone’s 2015 color of the year is PANTONE 18-1438 by the way. Who ever though you could make millions of dollars of quantifying color? One look at the wired’s blue dress argument and you can certainly see that pantone certainly knows how to scratch an itch!


What Color Is That Dress?

Who cares, really? Take a picture of it and use Photoshop to analyze it in terms of Hue, Value, Saturation. You can even compare to a Pantone color deck too. Consequently there won’t be any drama or hype in these methods and no hip color names either, just numbers – boring old math and science.

If the interaction of color is of further interest to you, you might find the work by Josef Albers of interest. He spent a career exploring how colors react to each other under different circumstances and wrote about it in his book: The Interaction of Color. One of the most helpful books I have ever read for understanding color and its scientific role in artwork is Light and Color in Nature and Art by Williamson and Cummins. This lesser known book has proven to be the best resource that I have found for understanding how color is created and how it can be controlled.


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