February 8, 2009

The Artist's Eye

An interesting discussion cropped up on the RESS forum, started by Lesli Kathman, and I wanted to share a bit with you.

First of all, take a moment to take the Munsell Hue Test to assess how well you see color. The lower the score, the better you "see" color. Now, keep in mind that monitor variations may alter your score a little.

My husband thinks I see colors funny. It all started because I called his Honda Accord brown when he thought it was grey. In his defense, the factory color was called "Charcoal." Now, brown is a very broad term for color, but he would not accept that the car was more brown than grey. Grey is an interesting color becuase it can have brown tones that make it warmer. The point is, I felt vindicated when I got a near perfect score on the hue test. Ha ha!

But, it makes me wonder about how people see colors differently. As an artist seeing color is important, obviously. But what about the buyer of a piece? Does the interpretation of a piece change simply because somone sees colors differently than you? For example, choosing paint and looking at more than a dozen shades of "beige." While some people think they all look the same, others can distinguish more gold or more grey in each color chip. In our last house, the beige on the wall and the beige carpet didn't quite work together, in my opinion. Did the previous owners not see it (or maybe they just went with what was on sale)? When working on our next house, a fixer upper, I was thrilled to be able to make sure the carpet worked with the color palette I had chosen for the walls. I think the color harmony contributes to the peacefulness of the environment (when all the toys are put away, that is). Of course, everyone knows colors affect mood (which is why Pizza Hut is red, which is supposed to make you hungry), but does the harmony of hues also affect mood? And what does that mean, if some people can't distinguish hues while others can?

I think part of seeing color is developing an eye for it. I had a great art teacher in high school that taught us how to start looking for color. She really pushed us to see beyond the obvious to see what colors were making up the object (like green in skin tones). Being from Illinois, I became fascinated by the range of colors in the corn fields. There is an infinite number of shades of green, alot depending on how the light is filtering through it. Nature is so full of color. Look at the picture above. Leaves aren't just green, but a hundred different shades of green. And green happens to be my favorite color, maybe because nature is replete with so many variations of it. It has a soothing effect on me, which is why my kitchen, master bath and bedroom are all a different, lovely shade of green.

But, maybe not everyone can be trained to see color? Are there limitations that prevent some individuals from seeing hues as clearly as others? And likewise, are some people naturally able to distinguish colors more easily? There is a study showing that some women are tetrachromats and can see in four colors, having an extra cone on the X chromosome that allows them to see millions more colors than the average person. I wonder what percentage of these individuals find themselves drawn to artistic fields?

So our genetic makeup determines how we see color. We can be trained to "see" color to the extent that we actually can distinguish the hues. And even for those who are only trichromats, there are still millions of colors to enjoy.


  1. I have always been interested in this topic, not just for the abilities to see color but if what I'm interpreting is actually the same as you. Both of us look at the grass and say it's green, but that's simply because as a child we were both told that grass is the color "green." If I got to look through your eyes, would the color you interpret as "green" be the color my brain says is "blue"?
    Make any sense?
    Anyways, in wondering that, I have always wondered if the way we interpret the color distinguishes if we like it or if it's a different personality preference. Obviously we know different people can and can't see different colors, but in the end, does it truely matter? As an artist, probably, in both choosing colors and trying to sell in the market. As a consumer, I don't know.
    Ok, done rampling. Good post. btw, what score did you get? I got under 20, which isn't bad for a crummy work computer and monitor under florescent lights :) I'm gonna try again at home on my new laptop...

  2. This is a really interesting topic! I am not on the RESS forum but I saw Lesli's blog post regarding her husband's color blindness and it got me to thinking. I know my husband and I see colors differently. He does not appreciate the difference in hues that I do, and I suspect that the ability to see color nuances is part of the artistic make-up.

    Anyway--very interesting post and look forward to more!

  3. I'm so glad that my ramblings hit a cord with some of you. I scored a 3 the first time I took the test, but I blame it on the monitor that I didn't get a 0 (wink).

    And it is so funny that you mention green and blue. My two year old is learning his colors and he is always mixing up blue and green, which makes me wonder whether or not he can distinguish them. I guess time will tell!

  4. Very interesting. Doesn't surprise me at all that you scored so great and your house is very comfortable place to be, I wouldn't put it past those beige hues! I think Grant might have a better eye for color than me (it's in his genes, you guys are all so great with the artistic eye, Grant seems to have an eye for detail also even though he's a boy :) I want Grant and I to take the test and compare. I'm guessing Grant will do better than me, but I won't tell him that! :) I like this philosophizing (is that even a word?)

  5. I got a 4! I'm shocked! I thought I would do way worse...

  6. I'm not surprised at all. I've seen your artistic flair come out in your photography. :) Let me know if Grant takes the test. Curious to see if it really does "run in the family". (Grant's my brother, for those who don't know). :D