In a previous post I wrote about the work of Jakob Vinther at Yale who was studying dinosaur fossils – http://colourware.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/what-colour-were-the-dinosaurs/. This work raised the intriguing possibility that we may be able to work out the colours of dinosaurs based on an analysis of fossil records. Today I read a report that a team of British, Irish and Chinese scientists have done just that – they studied microscopic structures inside the fossilised feathers from a Sinosauropteryx discovered in north-east China and found that the Sinosauropteryx had alternating ginger and white rings down its tail. The work was published in Nature.
We normally think of there being three colour primaries. There is no one set of primaries of course. If we think of additive colour mixing the primaries are red, green and blue. But which red, green and blue? There are almost as many sets of RGB primaries as I have had hot dinners. And I like hot dinners.
In subtractive mixing we sometimes read that red, yellow and blue are primaries; though we know now that RYB results in a rather small colour gamut and is not a great choice of primaries. Techies may know that the optimum subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow and, indeed, CMY are the primaries used in most desktop printers (though, again, there is no one set that everyone uses).
However, there is a sense in which there are four colour primaries: these being, red, green, yellow and blue. These are the so-called psychological primaries. Whereas the other sets of primaries I mentioned relate to technology – the technology of colour mixing – the psychological primaries relate to our phemenological experience of colour more directly. Red, green, yellow and blue are opponent colours – red is opposite green and blue is opposite yellow as first formally descibed by the physiologist Ewald Hering in the late 1800s. We can think of a colour as being a mixture of red and yellow (i.e. orange) or red and blue (i.e. purple) but we cannot conceive of a colour that is a mixture of red and green. We don’t see red and green at the same time in the same colour. Furthermore, these four colours are the unitary or unique hues. Though one can see reds that are bluish and reds that are yellowish, there is red that if you saw it you would say it is a pure red, neither bluish nor yellowish. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is remarkable agreement between different people as to the exact unique colours. For example, if people are shown a spectrum of different wavelengths and asked to pick the green that is pure (without bias) they will also select almost the same wavelength. Orange is not unique in the same way – though some oranges are reddish and some are more yellowish, every orange looks like a mixture of red and yellow. Orange cannot therefore said to be a unqiue hue.
There is a particular power and salience about the four colours red, green, yellow and blue and therefore it is no surprise to find these colours used frequently in advertsing and design. Most spectacularly, they are all used at the same time in two of the most famous logos in the world.
Curiously, Ruth Kedar, the graphic designer who developed the google logo was quoted in Wired magazine in 2008 as saying, “There were a lot of different color iterations. We ended up with the primary colors, but instead of having the pattern go in order, we put a secondary color on the L, which brought back the idea that Google doesn’t follow the rules.” It seems more likely, however, that the Microsoft logo is based on a clearer understanding of the relationship between the four psychological primaries. Though I have yet to find reliable information about the Microsoft logo so please add some details if anyone knows by making a comment.
There currently seems to be a lawsuit between Microsoft and Google regarding the use of colour in these logos. For further information goto http://colormatters.blogspot.com/2009/07/color-infringement-microsoft-vs-google.html.
The deadline for applications to attend the final CREATE event in Norway is coming up – end of January. Please take a look at the CREATE webpage – http://www.create.uwe.ac.uk/ – and think about putting an application into this event. If accepted you will receive funding for travel and living expenses and, more importantly, you’ll get a fantastic networking opportunity to meet about 100 other people from all around Europe who are as interested in colour as you are. You don’t have to be European to qualify but you probably need to be based in Europe.
The venue in Norway is stunning and well worth the trip.
It was nice to stroll into Leeds today and see all the green grass after all this snow we have had. All I have seen for the last 3-4 weeks is white – or rather, shades of grey as the snow melted, refroze and melted etc. So speaking of shades of grey, I came across a novel today in Waterstones of that very name – Shades of grey by Jasper Fforde – published in Dec 09. This novel is a sci-fi vision of the future where democracy has been replaced by colourtocracy; a social hierarchy based on your colour vision. Sounds interesting but it could take me some weeks to read it so if anyone has read it please reply to this post with a brief review.
Notice how the cover has red, yellow and blue on it. A further indication that the notion of red, yellow and blue as the primary colours is well and truly embedded in the general consciousness of the population (whether it is true or not that these are the primaries!).
Out of interest, I also bought The rain before it falls by Jonathan Coe (I love everything by this author) and Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Not of colour interest … but could be good reads.
For several decades there has been a great interest in understanding how we use colour names. Do we use the same colour categories (even though they may be called different things in different languages) irrespective of language and culture; in other words, is our perception of colour the same across all cultures and this shapes our use of colour names? Or, is our perception of colour shaped by our language. A well-known study by Berlin and Kay in the late 1960s suggested that language is shaped by perception. But the alterantive hypothesis – known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that perception is shaped by language also has support. We may soon know more about this issue because of an interesting on-line colour experiment being carried out by a scientist at Hewlatt-Packard. California-based Nathan Moroney’s multi-lingual colour-naming experiment uses a clever design that allows each participant to perform a small part of the experiment; but when lots of people take part – from all parts of the world and using different languages – some interesting and valuable data is collected. I won’t say any more about the work here because it is not complete yet; but I urge you to go and take part in the experiment. It only takes a minute or less to do it. And there is a debriefing document that you can read about the results obtained so far. Please visit http://www.hpl.hp.com/personal/Nathan_Moroney/mlcn.html.
Meanwhile a study by Skirinko (at the University of Virginia) and colleagues at Rice University reveals that the colour names that companies such for their products can have a big effect on sales. Consumer reactions are more positive to fancy names such as mocha as opposed to simple and generic names such as brown. The explanation for this is based on categorical perception; people use categories and a name such a mocha maps to a more positive cataegory than the simpler brown. So it is perhaps not jsut the colour of a product that affects sales; sales may also be affected by the langauage used to describe the colours of products.
The work by Skirinko et al. was published in Psychology and Marketing in 2006.
Now, before I write anything thing, I should say that I am a big fan of Adobe products. And it’s hard to think of a company that has done more to progress colour management than Adobe. At the Leeds University’s School of Design, where I teach, we use many Adobe products and Photoshop and Illustrator are virtually standards in their respective fields.
However, I don;t like the way Adobe presents its colour management options.
Colour management is difficult and certainly imperfect. For those users who don’t know or care about colour management the efforts of companies like Adobe and many others (especially those that constitute the ICC – http://www.color.org/index.xalter) have made colour fidelity much better over the last couple of decades. Open source profiles and the use of, for example, the sRGB colour space have ensured that even for users that don’t care or know about colour management, things pretty much work ok. And for those that are experts and know the difference between an input gamut and an output gamut; well, the colour management facilities provided by Adobe, for example, in Photoshop provide excellent tools and resources.
But I can’t help thinking that there is a huge gap between the naieve user and the expert user. Most of the design students in our school, for example, are not colour-management experts but, then, neither are they naieve users. However, the way that most software is designed (and this is not specific to Adobe, to be honest) is that it’s either all or nothing. As soon as you click on colour management options you are presented with a huge range of options (working spaces, rendering intends, colour temperatures, etc.). It just seems to me that this presents the user with a bit of knowledge with a problem since by fiddling with these settings they are more than likely to make things worse rather than better.
If I ruled the universe, then I would have software that is adaptive – that is, it would present colour management options in levels. It would be great if the software could work out your level of colour knowledge and present options accordingly; but if this is too difficult – or unpopular – then at least it could provide a number of levels: naieve, casual, knowledgeable and expert, for example. This way, users would be presented with an appropriate array and range of options.
As it is, I can’t help thinking that the software writers enjoy showing as many options as possible – as if they are shouting, “Look how many features we have!” – without regard for whether it is helpful to the user.
I just came across a really cool tool – see http://krazydad.com/colrpickr/
You click on a swatch colour and the tool finds images from flickr that are that colour. It doesn’t sound that great. But please give it a try. It’s mucho fun!! 🙂