You’re staring at your own reflection in a mirror at a local department store shocked how the scarf you put on that morning no longer matches the rest of your outfit. As you look down comparing the color of the scarf, you notice that while it in fact doesn’t match the color of your coat, it does seem to look similar to the stripes in your shirt. But why?
Metamerism! There’s a word most people have not heard unless they are in an industry that is dependent on the perception of color. Metamerism as it relates to color, is a phenomenon in where two colors appear different to different viewers or under different lighting conditions.
While people can perceive color differently, most instances like the one above have more to do with the physical characteristics of the object and the lighting you encounter throughout the day.
We see color when an object either absorbs or reflects wavelengths of light. We’ve all seen a rainbow or the light through a prism. That spectrum of colors is what is comprised in visible light. When an object absorbs red and green light but reflects blue, we see that object as blue. If it were to absorb green and blue but reflect red, we see it as a red object.
So now you might be wondering, how does that explain why the color of your scarf doesn’t look the same as it did at home. Simply put, the light involved in the viewing of your scarf is not the same as it is at home.
Incandescent lighting is made up of a burning filament inside the light bulb. Much like a campfire with its various shades of reds, the light from this source lacks a lot of blues and greens. When you look at an object under an incandescent light bulb, with less blue and green color in the light, there will not be as much of it to be reflected back to your eye.
Fluorescent lighting, by contrast, works by colored phosphors that glow or fluoresce when stimulated by ultraviolet light. This form of lighting is very irregular due to the fact that generally only three very distinct colors of phosphors are inside the tube. This leads to many gaps in the color spectrum and as a result, colors missing in the light generated.
Just as with an incandescent bulb, without a complete and balanced light you can not get back what you don’t put in. The missing gaps in fluorescent light mean that there will be missing colors reflecting back to your eye. That can lead to colors looking very different when compared to the same object viewed under incandescent light.
That covers the lighting you say, but what about the scarf itself? Does that play a part in this equation too? It certainly does.
Not all objects absorb and reflect light the same. If the dyes or pigments used in your scarf do not reflect colorbv evenly and the light source does not supply an even full spectrum of light as in the case of fluorescent lighting, the color you perceive will not be the same as it was at home under a standard light bulb. This effect can even happen with prints from your inkjet printer as some pigments used in the inks exhibit inconsistent behavior with the way they absorb and reflect light.
So now what can you do with this knowledge in regard to that scarf? Honestly, not a whole lot. When you buy any product in any store, the lighting used will not always be the same as at work or even when you are outside on a bright sunny day. You might want to walk around the store and see if they have other lighting you can view your possible purchase under including any windows as sunlight has a different spectrum of color than the store lighting. Keep in mind where your purchase will be viewed. Is it a vase you might have a ideal spot for at home? Again, the pigments used to color it may not reflect the same at home as they do at the store. Knowledge is probably your best defense at this point. Remember that the color of light is not a constant and that should go some way in helping you balance out the colors of your life.