Our perception of color changes throughout the day.
So you’re wanting to redo your living room and you’re thinking of repainting it a soft off white, but should it be seashell (bluer), ivory (neutral), or cream (yellower)? Depending on the time of day, it could be all three.
As the earth rotates and the sun moves through the sky, the angle and intensity of the sun shifts, altering the wavelengths of light as they reflect off of objects.
As a diurnal (daytime) species, our eyes have evolved to work better during the day than at night. That means that our brains are great at sorting through the information our eyes receive and deciphering it to figure out what color we really are seeing. All light has a “chromatic bias” and our brains are surprisingly good at removing that bias, even better than cameras.
Morning and evenings have an orange bias and the midday sky has a blue bias. As the day progresses, the brain automatically accounts for these biases and removes them. But the brain isn’t perfect.
The transitional periods; dawn to early morning, dusk to dark, and twilight are when the color bias changes the quickest, making your brain work the hardest.
“One of the reasons our brains find sunsets so thrilling is that we can see the color biases changing,” – Bevil Conway, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley College in Massachusetts
Experience does matter, though. According to Conway, the brain not only uses the immediate color data coming through the eye at any given moment, it also compares that information to a vast database of prior experience to arrive at its best color guess. Though the brain can be fooled, Conway says, its previous experience guides it toward more accurate perceptions of color in the future.
Tips to Improve Your Color Confidence
- The only way to be absolutely sure what a color will look like under different lighting conditions is to observe it firsthand. The sun’s angle and direction, as well as the amount and quality of artificial light, can have dramatic impact on color perception. Northern-facing rooms tend to skew blue during the day, and western-facing windows are affected most by the orange shift at sunset.
- Colors appear truest in the middle of the day under indirect natural sunlight. Too much sunlight can wash them out, however, while too little (morning and evening) tends to darken them. Oranges and reds can intensify later in the day, and as the light dims, darker colors become duller and harder to distinguish.
- What we perceive as “colors” are really surfaces reflecting and absorbing various wavelengths of light. Everything in a room can affect color perception — furniture, carpet, drapes, bookshelves — which is why a blank wall in an empty room can look dramatically different when that same room is furnished.
- Use window blinds to control the amount of direct light entering a room. While opening and closing them, pay careful attention to subtle shifts in color. This will help you anticipate other color shifts as the light changes throughout the day.
- Like natural light, artificial light has its own color biases. Incandescent bulbs have a warm orange shift. Fluorescent bulbs provide a cool blue light. LED light is whiter and more neutral but can also be programmed for different wavelengths and intensities, making it an increasingly popular indoor lighting option.
- Most pigments aren’t 100 percent light-stable. This means that they actually break down with prolonged light exposure, especially under UV light. So, if you have a richly colored object or painting, keep it out of direct sunlight, or put it under UV-conservation glass.