Sunday, August 18, 2019

The allure of tweeny colors

I recently saw an interesting question on Quora about colors that are positioned between the basic colors. Here is the question, and the answer I gave.

Question: “Why are those color hues so intriguing that linger right between two known colors: between blue and gray, between pink and purple, etc.? They keep me captivated with the visual ‘tease’.

Interesting question! I have seen this before, and my own observations are that these tweeny colors are interesting and either beautiful or ugly because of this. I don’t know if I have the answer to why, but I have one plausible explanation.

Basic fact #1: There is much information compression and loss of information as an image makes its way from the retina to the upper parts of the brain. If I look out on the room before me, and then close my eyes to attempt to remember what is there, I come up sadly short. I won’t remember anywhere near all the objects, or remember much in the way of details about them. I certainly wouldn’t be able to paint a picture from memory (even if I could paint).

Basic fact #2: There is evidence that colors work the same way. When the lower brain tells the upper brain that a car is red, it doesn’t report the exact color coordinates of the color either an an RGB value or a number from a color matching book. According to the theory, it will generally put the color of the car into one of a small number of buckets. There might be eleven buckets, or maybe there are just a few more.

I suspect you may be inclined to disagree with such a small number. Surely there are hundreds or maybe thousands of nameable colors? The small number in the last paragraph comes from an experiment where people were shown a color and moments later asked to pick that color out of a lineup. This experiment showed that our remembrance of a color skews toward a quintessential version of that color family, and there are not hundreds or thousands of color families. A somewhat desaturated blue is remembered as blue. A slightly orange version of yellow is remembered as yellow.

Here is my blog post on the experiment: How well do we remember color?

This explanation is consistent with the way we perceive the world. I look at a car and say that it is red, completely ignoring the fact that one part of the hood is lighter because of the position of the Sun, and the lower door panel is darker because it is partially shaded. In some areas of the car, there is a strong delineation in color, and I can easily choose to be conscious of that. In other places, the change in shade is gradual enough that it is difficult to be consciously aware of it.

Let’s apply this knowledge to your question. Consider looking at a car that is somewhere between blue and gray. I may glance at it once, and my lower brain will decide that the color is in the gray family. I look again, and my lower brain may change its mind and put the color in the blue family when it reports to the higher brain.

If this happens, we have a cognitive dissonance - the upper brain has to deal with two conflicting thoughts: “the car was gray” and “the car is now blue”. This conflict draws our attention to the color, hence it is interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment