How To Make Making Color Decisions Easier

I recently was invited to do a webinar for one of the professional color organizations I belong to. I called it “Collecting Pieces to the Puzzle of How Color Works“. It’s essentially a collection of info and tips to make making color decisions easier.

Far too many make choosing color out to be more complicated and harder than it actually is. I hope the info I share in this webinar gives you more insight to my innovative, fresh approach for choosing color and help clients make color decisions quickly and confidently.

The transcript of the webinar is below for your convenience. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Enjoy!


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What if I told you that you can put the paint sample boards down and stop struggling to see undertones?

What a sense of relief, right!? 

It’s true. You don’t have to subject yourself to the visual gymnastics that many people insist are necessary in order to get the color design results you want.

You don’t need to “learn how to see color” because the vision system you have works perfectly fine.

What you don’t have, is a system to JUDGE color. And a simple process to explain WHY it looks the way it does.

My name is Lori Sawaya. I’m a Color strategist and I have an online color training program called Camp Chroma. 

The transformation you experience when you train with me isn’t about trying to change how you see color; what transforms is how you EVALUATE how color actually looks.

Instead of talking about only one component of that system, we’re going to talk about several – or we could say several useful pieces to help complete the puzzle of how color works.

It’s a mash-up of information I wish I would have figured out sooner than I did.

I’m sure everyone here can relate to how long it can take to research anything about color. So, we’re going to kick things off with a couple of my favorite time-savers.

#1 is the settings cog at the bottom right of video frames. Click on it and choose “Playback Speed”. From here you can choose to slow down or speed up the video. 

This is really handy because you can speed up the video and it will take a fraction of the time to watch compared to normal speed – you can watch a 4-minute video in 2 minutes.

Another time-saver that I love is you can make an icon for your phone or tablet for any website so it opens like an app. For example, I made an icon for my discussion forums on The Land of Color and I made one for which is another website that I visit often. Creating an icon is really easy to do, just Google “How to add an icon for any website” to find directions for your device.

And speaking of devices, we can’t talk about saving time without talking about the ultra-portable devices like you see here.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is which device I recommend, which one is the best.

They all work basically the same way so a lot depends on the design of the app that works with the device and what kind of projects you want to use it for.

I happen to prefer the Variable, Inc. products which are Color Muse and Spectro 1. I include a Camp Chroma branded Color Muse in the kit that we ship to your door when you sign up for my course because it’s a good introductory device priced at just $60 — and I love the design and function of the app. A Color Muse is a colorimeter and it’s plenty accurate and powerful enough for architectural color design. 

Something to note is devices in a similar price range, like a Nix Mini, measure color using a D50 Illuminant – there isn’t an option to change the light source. 

It’s worth noting because the industry standard illuminant for architectural coatings is D65. That’s what all that paint manufacturers use to make their colors and their color collateral.

For some applications, this might be an issue but for an architectural color design workflow, it’s really not a big deal because the results you get with D50 and D65 are close enough. And a designer is at the end of the workflow to make visual judgments and final decisions.

I personally use a Spectro 1 or Spectro 1 Pro depending on what I’m measuring. I use the Pro device for any surface that has a shiny or gloss finish and the Spectro 1 for everything else. One of the key reasons why, is with the more expensive devices – these cost about $300 each – you get more features in the app like Spectral Curves and Metamerism Alerts.

Again, the difference between a Spectro 1 and Spectro 1 Pro is the Pro version accounts for gloss so you can measure glossy tile or counter tops, for example.

In technical terms the difference is specified as the Spectro 1 is specularity excluded and the Spectro 1 Pro is specularity included.

For example, the website uses instruments with sphere geometry, and specularity included to measure paint colors. So, if you use data values from EasyRGB to compare colors, I recommend the Spectro 1 Pro because it also measures color with sphere geometry and specularity included – Spectro 1 Pro is the most similar to EasyRGB.

The app design for the Spectro 1 devices is the same as Color Muse which is great – I love the consistency – but only the app for the Spectros displays Spectral Curves and Metamerism Warnings. 

And that’s because the Spectro devices are spectrophotometers and they capture more detailed information which is different from how the Color Muse works because it’s a colorimeter.

Without getting too technical – or boring – the basic difference between a colorimeter and a spectrophotometer is a colorimeter captures the overall important parts of color and a spectrophotometer gets more wavelength specific and provides more data points.

So, to answer the question which device do I recommend, I’d say Color Muse is good for a beginner, Spectro 1 if you know you’re not going to be measuring glossy surfaces, and the Spectro 1 Pro is the device for you if you want to cover all the bases.

The Spectro 1 Pro is the newest device from Variable and it can take a minute to get one because demand has been crazy.

There are many ways to streamline the steps in the color design process with these high-tech color tools. And I’m going to show you the easiest and most useful right now.

Understanding a color’s characteristics is important for several reasons: like, communicating what it looks like or figuring out harmonious color relationships.

And this is where these hand-held devices are super time-savers. Because you can scan a color and the information in the app will tell you what hue family that color belongs to; you can get a read on a color’s factual hue family in a matter of seconds.

We’ll use this quartz sample so you can see what I mean.

I measured light and dark areas on the sample. If we swipe left on the app, we get a new window with LCh values. We’re looking for the h value because H is for hue angle.

The lighter area has a hue angle of 99.94 and the darker area has a hue angle of 91.60.

When we plot those angles on The Color Strategist Color Wheel, we can quickly see that these colors are near neutrals from the Yellow Hue Family.

From here we can move forward in the design process and confidently look for paint colors – and other materials – that we know will relate to and coordinate with the exact colors in the quartz.

At this point in the conversation, you might be wondering what LCh is and how does the h indicate hue angle.

LCh refers to values within the CIELAB color space.

It’s hard not to stumble on CIELAB when you Google for information about how color works because literally everything that is colorful has a CIELAB value and every industry you can name across the globe uses this color space to make and manage color.

CIELAB is shorthand for the CIE (1976) L*a*b* color space that was introduced by the International Commission on Illumination. The CIE is a 100-year-old organization that creates international standards related to light and color.

There are two ways to illustrate and notate colors within the CIELAB color space. One is Lab and the other is LCh values.

I’m not going to get into the details of Lab and LCh values beyond what we’ve already done – showing you how to get the hue angle from the Color Muse app and how to use it to determine a color’s hue family. 

Because some of you probably already understand the CIELAB color space and if you don’t know what it’s about, it would take more explaining than we have time for today.

The one thing I wish I would have understood about CIELAB sooner than I did is that CIELAB refers to the color space itself and Lab and LCh is how to notate colors within the color space.

Getting CIELAB, Lab and LCh sorted out was extremely helpful because it made it much easier to understand and decipher the more technical color science papers and resources.

The reason why the CIELAB Color Space is formatted two ways is because the Lab Cartesian coordinates are awesome for comparing colors…. but not so great for helping to visualize what a color looks like in your head. LCh notations define and describe color appearance in a more relatable way.

Since the Munsell Color Order system was the template for the CIELAB Color Space, it was possible to align notations with Munsell Hue/Value/Chroma, and the result was CIELAB Lightness, Chroma and Hue also known as LCh.

It’s also why I was able to combine LCh hue degrees and Munsell hue families into one color wheel that I named The Color Strategist Color Wheel.

Getting proficient at visualizing color in your head is a matter of remembering that a color wheel – in this case The Color Strategist Color Wheel – is just one slice from the middle of a color space.

The high chroma hue parents featured on the wheel represent complete families of colors.

When you understand a 3-dimensional color space like CIELAB and Munsell, you know that every color has a place and notation within the color space.

Here’s another way to look at all the colors the hue parents on the color wheel represent. We’ll start with fully chromatic hue family neighborhoods that I placed on the outside of the color wheel and scroll through a gradation all the way down to colors of white. 

This is what the full chroma hue family neighborhoods look like. And we’re going to keep bumping it down in chroma.

Here’s the first step down.

Another bump down.

Now the colors are getting more noticeably muted.

Progressing closer and closer to neutral.

And here we get an idea of what Chromatic Grays from each hue family neighborhood look like.

Here’s a lighter view of those Chromatic Grays.

Another bump down in chroma and a bump up in lightness gives a sense of what near neutrals from each hue family look like.

And finally, this gives you a look at a full gradation of whites all the way around the wheel. There are colors of white and gray from every single hue family.

So, just because you don’t see all the different tints, tones and shades literally on a color wheel, know that they are implied and represented by their hue parent.

There are a couple things to know about combining LCh hue degrees and Munsell Hue Families into one color wheel.

Transforming values to a Munsell Hue/Value/Chroma notation involves mathematical interpolation and look up tables. It’s as complicated as it sounds but the good news is you don’t have to know or understand any of that – you just need to know what to do with the results. One of the anomalies – or as I like to affectionately call them…. areas of uncertainty – is in the blue region.

Specifically, the Blue to Purple-Blue (or 235 degrees to 290 degrees ish) is the area of greatest uncertainty when aligning LCh with Munsell hue families.

Being aware of this area means you know to trust a notation a little less with colors of blue and visually assess a little more.

You can always depend on your color mojo to fill in the blanks where the science is weakest – and that applies to using a framework of color notations in general; not just when it comes to known areas of discrepancy in the system.

The thing about the areas of greatest uncertainty with Munsell and CIELAB is that they don’t impact specifying color for the built environment all that much – the discrepancies aren’t that big of a deal for our application.

Because the average color strata for the built environment is mostly lighter to mid tones – where there is the least amount of uncertainty.

Also, the colors we use are mostly near neutral chromatic grays from the Yellow to Green-Yellow to Green hue family region – precisely where there is the least amount of discrepancy overall.

Where there is the most uncertainty, Blue to Purple-Blue mid tone to darker colors, is the region of the spectrum that we specify the least.

Another important nugget of information about the blue hue family neighborhood is 5 B, the middle of the blue hue family, isn’t your typical color wheel primary blue.

Instead, it’s bluish green. It’s bluish green for spacing reasons necessary to get equidistant spacing of Munsell hue families around the wheel.

Benjamin Moore’s Teal 2055-10, is a little on the darker side but it’s still a good physical example of a 5B color. If you grab a chip, you’ll see that it leans greenish, it’s not just blue.

If you’re looking for a typical primary blue, you’re going to find it in the 245-to-250-degree range. 

One of the reasons this adjustment works is because a hue circle is an interval scale with no defined point of zero.

You can see on this poster from Munsell Color that they explain the greenish slant of 5B by aligning it with the color of Cyan ink – I thought that was kind of a genius way to communicate what it looks like.

You’ll notice on most color wheels showing Munsell hue families, that the number five is emphasized somehow.  That’s because the number five marks the point where the highest concentration of the respective hue parent is perceived and that’s usually marked with a big dot – I choose to do the same thing when I designed my color wheel.
And you will find all kinds of color wheel designs featuring Munsell hue families. This is a picture one of my Camp Chroma students sent me. She found it in a book about the Munsell color order system and was confused about the numbers on the outside of the wheel.

She wanted to know what they were. She knew that they didn’t indicate degrees or hue angles because she had learned about LCh in my course.

When you come across a Munsell color wheel that looks like this, know that those aren’t angles or degrees. 

Those are units of hue family. Starting at 1 R. R means the Red Hue Family.

There are 100 units, 10 per hue family.

Some describe this arrangement as hue ranges divided into 10 sub zones splitting the color circle into 100 perceptually uniform hue segments.

The best way to format Munsell hue families into a color wheel is open to interpretation just like a lot of things about how color works. But the bottom line is no matter how the hue families are illustrated, the hue, value, chroma notation will be consistent and repeatable. Everyone will be on the same page when it comes to the notation. The notation will be consistent because everyone is working from the same core system of factual color definition and order.

So far, I’ve mentioned “factual color” a couple times. Let’s take a few minutes and explore what I mean by that.

I’m not a huge fan of Josef Albers. I think his small square on big square color effects theories are meaningful to fine artists but they don’t translate to the built environment; the proximity of color isn’t that literal in a 3-dimensional space. I heard someone call them “clever parlor tricks” once and that resonated with me – your mileage with the square-on-square concept may vary from mine – and that’s okay.

However, I found Albers’ take on factual vs. actual color kind of brilliant and I’ve adopted a version of that concept in to my color point of view.

Sarah Lowengard explained Albers best in a paper titled “EXPLAINING COLOR IN TWO 1963 PUBLICATIONS”. Here’s what she said:

“Albers called for a separation of what he called “factual facts” from “actual facts.” While a “factual fact” may be taught in the classroom (or valorized by color scientists working to quantify the visual experience), an “actual fact” is directly connected to experience. Albers’s interest was the “actual facts,” what viewer experience shows to be true, rather than what the scientist or mathematician declares to be so.”

Color measurements, data values, notations – whatever you want to call them are indeed factual. Part of what makes them factual is they’re repeatable. In our separate locations miles and miles a part we could both measure a Benjamin Moore paint color, get very near identical results, and easily agree with the numeric definition of that color.

In real-world architectural color design application, factual color is a first approximation of color appearance.

Actual color is what happens when the color is installed.

Both Factual Color and Actual Color are important pieces to the puzzle of how color works because if you understand how a framework of factual, numeric color descriptions work – like a hue, value, chroma notation – you can use that framework as a jumping off point to better understand, predict – and manage – how color actually renders in a space.

Ironically, it’s the defined light source used to determine numeric color descriptions that makes a framework of notations elastic with built-in flexibility to account for -and explain why and how- color shifts in different light sources  – and how and why color is perceived differently by different people in different contexts.

Because of that flexibility, color measurements in actual color design application, are the furthest you can get from rigid, formulaic or prescriptive.

Factual color stands in stark contrast to theories like it’s possible to categorize color according to perceived “undertones”.

Because undertones are someone’s subjective opinion of how a color actually looks – to them – under unspecified light sources in a particular context. When people use the word undertone, they’re describing their response to an amount of discernible hue in a color. Because it’s subjective, there’s no guarantee that description will scale beyond their own perception.

Which is why collecting these two final pieces of factual and actual color is a good way to wrap up our webinar today.

There’s no question about the power and usefulness of a factual framework.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember the words of Fred Billmeyer, Jr. who said, “Nobody accepts or rejects color because of numbers – it’s the way it looks that counts.”

That’s my favorite color quote and I like to squeeze it in wherever I can.

I hope you find the information I shared in today’s webinar helpful and useful. And thanks for choosing to spend some time with me talking about color. I hope I’ll see you next time.

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