“How do you get better at seeing color?” I got this question from a client while we were discussing color options for a direct mail piece. By the end of our conversation we had covered color vision, psychology, harmonies and trends. At the end he asked me how he could to improve his own ability to see color.
The more you work with color, the more aware you become of subtle differences. Much of color perception is simply understanding what you are seeing.
We can perceive billions of colors, which we have sorted into 12 hue families (based on Johannes Itten’s 12-hue color system), plus tints, shades, tones and neutrals made from the hues. We can basically differentiate between 24 levels of light and dark. A trained eye can discern even more levels.
Color Vision is Physiological
Have you wondered about your ability to see color well, and if everyone perceives color in the same way. Generally speaking, they do. Color vision is a physiological function. If our eyes are operating as designed, we all see the same red, green, or periwinkle or close to it. We might use different names for these colors, but color perception works the same way for everyone. While our experience of color may vary, our perception is mostly the same.
The exception is, of course, those who have some degree of color blindness or reduced vision. Due to lack of function of some of the retina’s photoreceptor cells, color perception is limited.
There are ways to test your color perception. The Ishihara test uses circles made of colored dots revealing a letter or numeral. If the numeral is visible to the viewer, color perception is normal. If not, the viewer may be color-blind.
Color Mixing Enhances Color Perception
The practice of mixing colors, either digitally or with pigments, is a good way to train the eye. One method is to find natural forms and match their colors using both paint and Photoshop. Looking at a leaf, for example, try to determine if the green has more yellow, more blue, more red, or no blue at all (many “greens” are mixtures of yellow and black) and how vivid or dull the color is. This exercise is quite useful for strengthening your ability to see color accurately, if you do it regularly.
Color Sorting Increases Perceptual Ability
Pulling colors from digital images and arranging them into different palettes is also useful. A single set of colors can be sorted according to brightness, lightness, hue family, and temperature (warm or cool).
Fun Color Challenges and Apps
Try this online color challenge from XRite. This test asks you to arrange 4 tiers of color swatches. The differences from color to color are subtle. For this test, the lower your score, the better you are at perceiving slight differences in color. With visual training, you can improve your perceptual skills. This is a test that you can take over and over again to gauge how you’ve improved.
Blendoku by Lonely Few LLC presents color sorting puzzles of various degrees of difficulty and complexity. The user moves squares from a line-up of colors into sequential position on a grid, according to pre-positioned anchor colors. This humble little game goes a long way in building color accuracy. Cost:Free. Offers in-app purchases.
Adobe Color CC app (formerly Kuler) is a handy palette-capturing app that syncs with Adobe Creative Cloud. Point your camera at a scene and the app scans and selects colors, creates palettes and stores them in Creative Cloud for later use. Cost: Free. There is a related app for Apple Watch.
myPantone also helps you create color schemes from your photos, and provides color notations in RGB, hexadecimal, LAB and CMYK. Point the smartphone camera at anything and it will grab colors and create palettes which you can share via email or upload. Cost: $9.99
And then there’s the grandaddy of all color apps: Interaction of Color by Josef Albers created by the good folks at Yale. Based on Josef Albers’ color studies, notations and paintings, it is an interactive accompaniment to his book of the same title. Cost: $13.99
More resources about color perception and systems: