Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Arranging paint and (once again) vermillion

If you have ever picked up a card of paint samples and said to yourself "Gee whiz! I love the feel of the way these colors go together. The aesthetic beauty is overwhelming!" then you should probably contact Phil Kenyon to thank him for providing you with a few moments of sensual pleasure in your otherwise drab, wretched existence. If, on the other hand, you have picked up a paint card and said to yourself "OMG! Were these paint chips arranged by a left-footed Batswanian bandersnatch with halitosis?" then you might want to call up the paint company and tell them about Phil Kenyon.

Which color set has that "I gotta buy some paint right now" look?

It is very unlikely that the paint cards were actually arranged by Phil. Phil is not in the hallowed profession of paint sample card designers. But he is the president of Chromalyzer, a company which provides software to help paint sample card designers lay out their paint sample cards in a way that feels good. I bet you didn't even stop to think that such software might exist. I didn't give it any thought until I met this gentleman who trods amongst the artists and the scientists.

Phil has access to a huge database of names and spectra of all the colors of paints offered by all the paint companies in the universe. Naturally, in my unrelenting quest to find out what color vermilion is, I contacted him. His answer is worthy of being my first guest blog.

What's in a name?
by Phil Kenyon

While it is likely that furthering a discussion on finding ways to convert grass cuttings or the gas from old sneakers into a new energy source would result in a more tangible benefit to mankind, sadly I know nothing whatever about this topic other than I may well be a great source for at least one of these basic ingredients. This being the case I am limited to selecting John’s Discussion on The Definition of Vermilion to expand on, rather than attempting any loftier goal.

I have spent a great deal of time striving to better understand and navigate the largely subjective languages and landscapes in the world of color and attempt to bring objectivity and order to the process for those that seek to use the power that color wields over our lives and emotions for the purposes of good rather than evil.  

John’s Question “What is the definition of Vermilion” could possibly be answered with another question, “What is in a name”.  Since the original question was asked by a mathematician, the answer to my second question can be stated in precise mathematical terms as “a lot”.

Occurrences (Gamut in L*a*b*) of the use of Vermilion or Vermillion (sp) in color names taken from a compiled list of over 35,000 color names in use in decorative paint palettes in North America

The fascinating thing about color is that it generates a great deal of passion not only from the Physiological influence that it has over us from a visual perspective, but that it also creates a great deal of passionate discussion over how we define it in terms of an adjective, or in terms of a colorimetric value. 

Since color is derived essentially from Light we can define the visible spectrum in terms of wavelengths measured in Nanometers (400 to 700nm give or take….).  No argument there right? The problems start when you introduce the stuff that absorbs or reflects these wavelengths and therefore what it is that we perceive as a single color. Shine a different kind of light on a painted piece of paper and it looks different. Keep the light the same and make the sample shiny or rough, and it looks different.  Did it change color or just appearance?

This is one problem with trying to define Vermilion. Vermilion, as are most objects that are perceived as being colorful, is something of a chameleon. We have to understand the nature of the chameleon.

Back to the question “What is in a name?” There is a commercial answer and one which actually does also have a loftier goal if it can be answered correctly.

The commercial answer is, people don’t want a color that is described as a nanometer, or an RGB or LAB or any other notation that seeks to define a color in numerical form that allows us to manufacture and reproduce it with some degree of accuracy and control.  They want to connect on a more personal level. Try answering “how do I look” to your husband or wife as 5’7”, 140 lbs, see where that gets you.  

If the description does not meet some realistic expectation, irrespective of whether you actually quite like what you see, the disconnect is likely to result in a negative reaction, No Sale.  It is important to understand what the accepted boundaries are of Vermilion, Terracotta, Ivory, Bronze.  The more broad the terms the more difficult this becomes, consider Cactus, Denim, Candy, Stone.  It is important to use Objectivity in establishing these boundaries of subjective opinion.  Finding the center or in some cases centers of the color space and making sure the color you use is nearer the center and not outside the lines makes sound commercial sense.

As for the Lofty goal, Color has power. It affects mood and behavior and while there may be no unequivocal evidence to support this, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the right color environment will aid in more rapid recovery from illness, stimulate creativity, calm aggression etc.
The purists in the Color Science community will be quick to point out that it impossible to define precisely which colors result in these behavior’s since color and appearance are actually not one and the same, which is accurate.  The appearance of a color varies as we described before and is also influenced by many other factors not described here.  However, irrespective of the challenges of being able to specifically define “Vermilion” or “Calming Blue” the ability to define the Zip code that either of these definitions of a color lives in, and the most central address to go look for it is way better than saying it was last seen West of the Rockies.

When you need help choosing a color or defining an entire palette for any purpose, you probably select someone you feel has a good sense of what the color should be.  Just like a great musician, some people just have a natural gift for working with color and a sense of what goes together.  But just like any natural talent, it takes more than that to become the best at what you do. You have to understand the process, learn the nuances of the different genres and most of all understand your audience.  I may never be the most naturally gifted musician, my role in color is to help everyone in the band be as good as they can be and make sure the audience hears some great music. And if it’s Reggae, it won’t sound like hip hop.

Phil Kenyon is president of Chromalyzer llc, a company that creates and sells software for benchmarking analysis and development of large color palettes and provides consultancy services for clients in the USA and Europe.

Just in case you wanted a bit more of a sense of his software, here are a few movies showing two of other words that are in the vocabulary of color naming people.


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