AT on...Color Inconstancy

AT on...Color Inconstancy

Oct 6, 2006

You can get through life without being betrayed by a lover, but sooner or later color is bound to disappoint you with its inconstancy.

Yes, color inconstancy is a topic of grave concern. But you know this already. There was that green sweater you tried on in the store, the one that complemented your eyes so well and then mysteriously turned a sickly brown when you wore it in a candle-lit restaurant. Or that nifty ochre upholstered chair you spent an arm and a leg on only to find that it looked orange in your sunny living room.

"Color inconstancy" is the technical term for this, and means "the change in color of a single sample under different lights."

For instance, the other day my mother referred to the paint color in her bedroom as yellow, and I became very confused, thinking maybe my parents had moved without telling me. "You mean peach, right?," I urged, fully expecting her to correct herself.

"No, I mean yellow. It's the same paint we used in the small bathroom downstairs," she said.

I was utterly confused. The bathroom downstairs is a cheery, unmistakable yellow. My parents' bedroom is a subtle peach color. And it has been that way for years. But so too the opposing orientations of these rooms. And one room is sunny, the other softly shaded by trees. The light variation is enough to lend a single paint color (which in the can appears to be a very soft, warm yellow mixed with white) so much range that I'd always thought it two.

Color inconstancy can really dog you when you're adding color to your home. So here are a few precautions to take when you're painting or making any other important color decisions:

• As much as possible, look at color samples and make choices in the room you're painting or furnishing. Not in the store. Not in the catalogue.

• If the decision concerns paint, know that the small paint chips are too small to give you an accurate sense of how the color will ultimately interact with the room's light conditions. These days you can get pretty big paint samples. Get multiples and tile a big patch of them on the wall. Check them out during the day at different times, and at night with your lights on. Or, for about $2 apiece, you can buy a small can of paint to test out at home from certain paint manufacturers such as Sherwin Williams and Behr.

• When all else fails, walk the item you're considering (whether a paint chip or a pillow) over to the store's window to try to see what it looks like in daylight. Go out onto the sidewalk if they'll let you. Chances are the light in your home is closer to daylght than to the scary fluorescent light common in retail environments.

This post originally appeared June 15, 2006

Deepa said, "Very informative post. Thank you."

Andree said, "Let's cross reference some color posts. Here's one I sent in back in March. Note that Windows users can calibrate their monitors using the Color By Number system from Here's the most recent Color Therapy post."

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