Or so it would seem. A couple things came up recently with regard to LRV, light reflectance value, and I decided to write a blog post to tell you what happened.

color-by-numbers-aloneFirst up is my virtual client on the west coast who works in the film industry. He is particularly adept with lighting. When he bought a bungalow on the beach, he noticed the interior rooms had a unique quality of light. He reached out to me because he found the article I wrote in 2005 about LRV. The goal was a color strategy customized for the bungalow’s unique quality of light and he chose to trust me with color selections. Also, he wanted to use a boutique brand of paint, which I will not name. You’ll understand why in a minute.

After discussing LRV and how it informs color decisions, he told me what brand of paint he wanted to use. I groaned and said, “Ooooh, that won’t be a problem but you should know the LRV numbers they published aren’t correct. I can get correct values for their colors but I need to explain how that has to happen.”

He thought that because he could look something up on a paint brand’s website it would be correct. As many of you who have followed me on various decorating and paint forums know, my opinion is the paint industry, in general, is the last place on earth you’re going to find color expertise. They have paint expertise out the wazoo and you should absolutely trust their guidance about paint chemistry, but they have repeatedly proven to me over the course of more than a decade that they are not what I consider to be color experts.

I have never met anybody in a paint store that could answer the tough color questions; zero luck with answers to anything beyond basic color theory and color scheme stuff, especially no luck asking about LRV. Trust me, for the past 11 years I have asked on a regular basis just for fun, just to see what they’d say.

However, there was one young person who worked in a Sherwin Williams store. When I asked her about the LRV notated on the back of every Sherwin-Williams color chip, she rattled off the perfect one-liner. I asked her how she knew. You know what she said? She told me to go to this website called The Land of Color and I’d find an article all about it. Yep, she referred me to my own article about LRV. I just smiled and thanked her for the info.

CIE Lab Color SpaceBack to the bungalow on the beach. Thinking something had changed since the last time I checked out the LRVs for that paint brand, I followed the link shared by my client. Nope. They were still wrong. The unnamed paint company made a common mistake by listing a value called CIE L* instead of LRV. CIE L* is a lightness value from the CIE L*a*b* color space which is an industry standard color space. I have to give them credit, however. Even though their document was titled “Light Reflectance Values”, they had the column of values correctly labeled as L*. It’s the “L” that throws people because logically they think CIE L* must mean LRV. (It doesn’t)

The average person functioning in the paint and color industry doesn’t have one fat clue about spectral data or color spaces let alone that CIE L* is different from CIE Y. CIE Y is the colorimetric term for LRV. Knowing why reflectance is separate from lightness is something you don’t get unless someone shows you how they’re different. If you want to understand it, sign up for my Camp Chroma online course. The focus is the practical application of extraordinary color expertise. You’ll learn about lightness and LRV plus a whole lot more.

So, the problem I end up with is I have a client who believes that the paint brand’s website knows more about LRV than me. How was I going to handle this without totally marginalizing the paint brand and sounding like a jerk by calling them out on their (kinda huge) mistake?

I decided to contact the paint brand directly and explain their error so they could fix it. Sort of out of the goodness of my heart, but I also needed them to get their shit together because it was now an issue that was affecting me. . . to be brutally honest.

When I called, I told the energetic man who answered the phone that I needed to speak to someone who was good with the color science stuff. Enthusiastically he said, “I can help you!” So, I explained the problem and a silent pause ensued. He told me he’d have someone call me back. Figured as much.

A few hours later one of the senior executives returned my call, he was so nice! I wanted to tell him how much I love his brand’s color palette, and what a great job his team was doing with marketing and hang up. But I couldn’t do that, I called for a reason and I had to tell him.

About a quarter of the way through my delivering the news, he interrupted me. He said, “Well, I have this article here by Lori and Albert Sawaya about LRV and how it works and we’ve referred to this information….” At that point, I knew where this was going and before it got any weirder and awkward I interrupted him and said, “I am Lori Sawaya.” He said, “What?” and I repeated, “I am Lori Sawaya.”

Another silent pause.

Now that I had his full attention (because I dropped my own damn name) I was able to explain what he needed to fix and how. A few days later, he emailed to let me know they did have it wrong and they corrected all their documentation. He thanked me for pointing him to the correct values and marveled that no one, not even the color experts at their own independent retailers, had noticed the mistake.

Further reinforcing my opinion that as perfectly lovely, and smart as the people are, a paint store and the paint industry is the last place on earth you’re going to find extraordinary color expertise. It’s just the way it is. I feel bad saying it aloud but it’s the truth I’ve experienced for more than a decade. This is just one example. I have more.

One more thing, before anyone tries to imply since the LRV error wasn’t caught sooner, that just proves LRV isn’t useful and no one ever needed that information. Let me just say that’s a short-sighted way to look at the situation. The truth of the matter is, considering all the interior designers, architects, painters, and color consultants that have specified this brand of paint, one could conclude that none of them had a working knowledge of LRV. None had ever questioned the numbers published because they couldn’t. We have no idea how many have used the wrong data and what the result was – good or bad. Nor do we know how many scrapped using this brand altogether because they couldn’t get the LRV ratios to come out right and couldn’t figure out why.

The fact that it’s been notated incorrectly and has gone unnoticed is an indicator of the caliber of color expertise, past and present, that everyone seems to think is good enough.

With that said, even though a color science or a colorimetric approach to color isn’t rocket science and anybody can learn how to do it, I know qualified color training resources have been nonexistent. You can’t blame and beat people about the head and shoulders for not knowing what they don’t know.  Geeze Louise, that’s all of us – nobody knows everything!

This is why even though this blog post might pack a punch of reality and puts some harsh truths in black and white that might sting when read, it’s necessary to talk about it. Especially considering the advancements in color tools. Color tools that are user-friendly and affordable but were once exclusive to scientists in color labs. The corrections needed in order for everyone to grow and expand their color knowledge aren’t going to be addressed unless awareness is stirred

With a reenergized spirit to help make things better, let’s look at another example. This is currently on a light bulb website and I feel entitled to discuss because they cited me as a source and used my LRV scale. I do appreciate the citation and credit, by the way.

Again, the problem is that darn grayscale and lightness business. Because I have a note on the LRV scale to remind everyone that light reflectance values are not the same as grayscale, they wrote the following in their article:

“The LRV measurement is inclusive to all paint colors and is not limited to the gray scale.”

The “not limited to the gray scale” part hints that my note in parenthesis led them to the conclusion that I was pointing out all colors have light reflectance values, not just the whites, grays and black as depicted. That’s true too but the message intended, that LRV and grayscale are different, seems to have been lost on someone.

LRV ScaleThis made me realize I could do something better. I need to revise that note so it’s clearer because their assumption is actually quite astute. Someone looked at that LRV scale I made and really thought about it.

I need to change the note on the LRV scale so it conveys -clearly- the fact that a light reflectance value is a different attribute from a grayscale value. Maybe something like “LRV Measurement Scale (different from grayscale comparison)” I don’t know. Need to work on it. I’m open to suggestions if you have any.

In the meantime, anyone know where I can find some low-carb, gluten-free humble pie?


  1. I know that LRV is the measurement of how much light will be reflected, but I’m not sure what grayscale is. Is it the measurement of how bright a color is? If so, then I understand the difference, because a darker color can be brighter than a lighter color. Is it called ‘grayscale’ because more gray means less bright (meaning less chroma)? Please help me understand, and then maybe you will also have figured out a way to help the paint companies understand. I’ll bet there’s something about the color yellow and it’s ‘strength’ that has something to do with this too. I hope my confusion helps:).

    • Hi Kim,

      Yes, you are correct. LRV is a measurement of how much light a color reflects. The difference between reflectance and grayscale is included in the Camp Chroma modules because it’s best explained with visuals and a video vs. paragraphs. Reflectance and grayscale are interrelated with other color concepts and are best understood when they’re all framed together which is why I’ve never taken the topic farther than the one ‘executive summary’ type article I wrote in 2005.

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