27 February 2012

What's that color?

I get at least three e-mails every week from readers of this blog and other things I've written around the internet. This is immensely gratifying and most of these e-mails are questions about a photo or a request for advice about flooring, appliances, counter materials or cabinet brands.


I'm glad to answer these questions and I love that strangers look to me as a source of solid information. However one question I'll never answer definitively is "What's that color?"

This happens most often in response to the things I've written for Houzz.com. It's a legitimate question and every time someone asks it I launch into what's by now a rote speech.

The short answer is that it doesn't matter because you're not seeing the actual color. What human eyes see as color is reflected light and how a color reads in a photo is completely dependent on how a subject is lit at the time the photo was taken. So the act of photographing something distorts its color, sometimes pretty radically. So that's one degree of distortion.

Add to it that you're seeing that photo on an uncalibrated computer monitor and that's at least two more degrees of distortion.

After all those distortions, the nuance of the original color is lost for good.

Photos on the internet are good for general families of color. You can look at a photo of a room and know that you want a yellow kitchen or a taupe living room. But the actual colors used in the photo won't look in your home the way they do in the photo you're admiring.

Here's a detail of a kitchen I designed. The wall color is Sherwin-Williams 7037 and I picked that color because it played well with the off-white cabinetry paint color and it was as similar hue to the brown veins running through the Calacatta marble on the counters and back splash.

If I were to go to Sherwin-Williams' website and look at the swatch, here's what I'd get.

Even though they're same color, they look nothing like each other. What's more, the color as it appeared on the walls was off from the swatch in my Sherwin-Williams chip library.

The difference between a paint swatch and actual paint is typical, and a good designer knows how to accommodate it. The difference, by the way, is due to the fact that a paint swatch is a printed approximation of a paint color as it will appear with an eggshell sheen. Paint swatches are never the actual paint. Different sheens make even the same paint colors look completely different.

So the answer to "What's that color?" isn't an answer. Rather it's an explanation, and a long-winded one at that. It's impossible to specify precise colors with photos and even more impossible to do so with an image on the internet. The only way to gauge true color is to paint a wall, let it cure for a day and then decide whether it works or not.

I know that's not the advice most people are looking for; but it's the cold, hard truth. Use photography, be it on the internet, in a magazine or in the marketing collateral from a paint brand as a general guideline to help you identify a direction. But until a paint color hits the wall, you'll never know how it will actually look.

So go ahead, ask me anything. Just don't ask me what color something is.


  1. When I was doing print design and the web was just getting started, the comment that always made me tear my hair out was "The Pantone color in our logo does not match the logo color on our web site." No amount of explanation about monitor gamma range, color models, etc would satisfy them. The conversations mostly ending up in a shrieking panic "MAKE OUR LOGO COLORS MATCH!" I suspect most of the time the marketing branding cop was writing scathing memos in the background.

    Fortunately, for many, those days are over as monitors have gotten way, way better at rendering color more consistently and branding cops starting reading up on web color. Well, most of them anyways...

  2. People drive me nuts sometimes. I try to explain the difference between reflected color and projected color but as often as not, it falls on deaf ears.


Talk to me!