The Dress: Color Ambiguity Makes the News

dress_colorAfter writing a Special Edition of the Color Explorer News, I spent the better part of this week following The Dress. Who would have guessed that the color of a dress could become such an internet sensation!  Randall Munroe of xkcd fame drew the explanation above.

If you’ve not already seen it a million times, the dress in question is the one shown in the middle of the photo below.

What color is the dressThe debate over the color of The Dress generated over three million votes on Buzz Feed. That’s a big enough number to make neuroscientists sit up and take notice. After reading all the various scientific explanations, here’s my interpretation of what happened.

An Unexpected Lesson in Color Constancy

Last April, I gave a seminar at the IPCA conference in Malta about color and optical effects. I included examples of color constancy similar to the cubes below by artist and author James Gurney.


The blue square in the red picture is the same color as the red square in the green picture. From James Gurney.

Forget about the color of the dress, it’s all about the perceived color and quality of the lighting. The main reason people see the dress differently is based on Color Constancy. The illustration above shows that we make decisions about color based on the clues we get about the color of the illumination.

The original Dress photo caused an internet frenzy because the clues about the lighting were ambiguous. With no solid cues available, our brains shifted into personal default mode to make a split second decision about the lighting.

What the results of The Dress survey showed was that there were at least two very different default positions possible.  Flip the switch one way and you see a blue and black dress, flip it the other way and you see a white and gold dress.


The image above is from an interview of Jessica Witt, associate professor of psychology at CSU. The left side shows the default switched to assume a dress washed out in the glare of light. The right side shows the default switched to assume the dress is in shadow. Believe it or not, the right side of both dresses are the same colors.

Since my husband saw it as white and gold, and I saw it as blue and black does that mean we are “wired” differently? (Well, we are but we already know that!) If his default is to see it in shadow does that mean he’s a glass half empty kind of guy? No, he’s not.

The real news is that the dress is just the tip of the neuroscience iceberg. The BIG, HUGE question is – how does the brain decide each person’s specific default position? The theories proposed over the past week are all over the map. They range from variations in the number of cones in the eyes and gender bias, to age bias, to preferences for warm or cool colors, to prior experiences, to time spent outdoors while growing up, to whether you are a morning or night person or a right brained or left brained person. Yikes! I bet it will take the scientists years to figure it all out.

 The Test

On the heels of The Dress, came The Test. Professor Diane Derval from the School of Management at Fudan University in Shanghai City posted the image above with the question “How many separate color nuances do you see?”

“The color nuances we see depend on the number and distribution of cones (=color receptors) in our eye. You can check this rainbow: how many color nuances do you count?”

Count them and then fill out the survey below . . .

Maggie’s Super Unscientific Investigation of The Dress 

Just for fun, I’m collecting my own data.

Count the colors you see in the Derval Color Test above and then scroll down and fill out the survey below. I will share the results in a future post.

Now on to other things.


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New Master Class to Debut in Bali

Bali_masksSmashing Color Master Class
Exploring Optical Blending
September 23 -24, 2015
Bali, Indonesia

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be teaching a new color class for the first time as a pre-tour option to Barbara Alexander’s Bali Fiber Tour (September 27th – October 10th.)

The two-day polymer workshop will be hosted by Warren and Robbin of e-Bu Jewelry ( in their breathtaking villa. Jon Stuart Anderson ( may stop by for a visit and, as part of the textile tour, Jon always provides a polymer clay demo to Barb’s guests.

Info about Barb’s Fiber Arts Tour
I will not be joining the fiber tour but I’ve heard absolutely wonderful things about it from others who have gone. There is room for just two more women on the full 14 day tour and Barb would like to offer the spots to polymer artists who also love textiles!

Experience the wonderful centuries-old weaving and dyeing techniques that have made this Indonesian island famous. Tjap and tjanting batik, ikat weaving, indigo dyeing from the plant source and other natural dye techniques… You’ll meet the artisans and get right in on the design process with hands-on workshops. Imagine 14 days in a textile and tropical paradise!  Once you arrive in Bali, this is a mostly all-inclusive tour.  

For more information about the textile tour go to
You can also email Barb at for details or to reserve your place.

P1020969Info about the Pre-Tour Smashing Color Workshop
Optical Blending – colors mixing in the eye – can either steal the light from your design or enhance its luminosity.  This is especially true when reducing canes in polymer clay, choosing weft and warp colors in weaving, painting in the pointillist style, and deciding on plants in landscape design.

Over the course of the two days  you will learn about the three ways that colors mix together, experiment with simple tips and tricks to help you avoid disappointing surprises, practice controlling color shifts, and explore techniques that use optical blends to add sparkle to your work. It sounds like work but it will be FUN!

I’m excited to debut this new two-day Smashing Color workshop on my way to teach in Australia and New Zealand. A warm thank you to Warren and Robbin for offering to host the class and to Barb for coordinating the details.

Here’s the Link to the full Master Class Description.
You can contact me for details about the pre-tour workshop at

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Color Scheming on the Computer

Color wheel | Color schemes - Adobe Color CCThere’s no replacement for hands-on experimenting in the studio but sometimes it’s fun to go down some rabbit holes and discover the strange and wonderful ways people play with color.

I spent many hours on the internet searching for well designed, free color sites that are easy to use. There are dozens out there. I’ll just share a few of my favorites. I hope they help bring more color into your life as we start the new year.

Note: As I jumped in and out of color sites, I discovered that many have ads.
I consider this a minor annoyance since I am good at ignoring them in return for the fun of exploring color.

Paletton - The Color Scheme Designer-2Color Scheme Generators

This type of site lets you choose a starting color and then spin the wheel to find your hue harmony – monochromatic, analagous, complementary, triad, etc. I find them fascinating, and somewhat addictive, but not actually very useful since I like to come up with my own color schemes.

  • Adobe Colour CC (formerly Kuler)
  • Paletton – So many ways to play.
  • Color Game – Not really a generator. More of a matching challenge. Play single colors first then hue harmonies.

Color Palette Generator-1Identifying the Colors in Images

Some generators identify the colors in an image to use as inspiration. Most choose just five colors.  Some do so much more!

Here are the two sites that came closest to capturing the key colors in a test image:

Note: You can even use images of famous painting to identify colors for inspiration.

IN COLOR BALANCE | ShadeFinding a Color Scheme

No idea where to start? There are all sorts of color schemes free for the picking. You don’t have to join these sites to just look!

  • ColourLovers - Click on “Browse”  to see palettes and patterns OR add your own colors to any of the patterns.
  • Design Seeds – A daily dose of color.
  • In Color Balance – Russian site similar to Design Seeds.
  • Perfect Palette – For weddings and parties.
  • Pinterest – One of the best places to find visual inspiration. My friend Carol Simmons has many beautiful boards on color combinations.
  • Dribble – Show and tell for designers.

TinEye Labs - Multicolr Search LabTesting a Color Scheme

You’ve decided on the colors and want to try them out. These sites come in many variations include creating collages, and testing for color blindness.

  • Tin Eye Labs. Let’s you change proportion of your colors and creates a collage of images from Flickr in your color scheme. Very fun!
  • Coblis – Test images for color blindness.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for color scheming sites. Enjoy the links!

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A Year of Color and Light

GLOW Eindhoven 2010 | Bram Platel_s PhotoBlog

If you really want to learn about color – you must learn about light!

The United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. I plan on celebrating all year long by learning as much as I can about light and sharing what I learn.

In honor of the 100th Anniversary of the publication of Munsell’s Color Atlas (and my 60th time around the sun), I’m taking this year as my personal Year of Color and Light! I won’t be traveling to teach until next fall so that I can stay in Portland and focus on developing a new website for artists, designers and teachers who want to explore 21st Century Color.

I think of all of you as my fellow Color Explorers and I invite you to come along as I venture deeper and deeper into the wonderful world of color and light.


  • Video introducing the International Year of Light.
  • Beyond James Turrell: 10 More Great Artists Who Use Light as a Medium.
  • Lyon Festival of Lights – It was on December the eighth 1852 that residents of Lyon first lit candles as a way of thanking the Virgin Mary for ridding the city of plague 200 years earlier. Now the annual festival in early December showcases the art of light at over 70 sites.
  • GLOW – Every year, at the beginning of November, the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands is lit up by artists who use light to bring the local architecture to life.
  • Aurora Carealis – Happening now in Finland.
  • Photo above by Bram Platel from the 2010 GLOW
  • Color and Light by James Gurney – the best book on color for artists.
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Newsletter Feature of the Month: Optical Illusions

AlbersA1I copied and pasted this segment from the November newsletter I sent out yesterday.  Lots of fun links!  You can sign up for the newsletter on the right. Here’s a link to the November newsletter: Newsletter #2. … more→

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Color Scales for Artists – November 21st at OSA

color mixing scales - Maggie Maggio

With the help of generous support from Muse Art and Design, our local independently owned art supply store, I’ve spent the last year exploring color in traditional media – acrylic, oil, watercolor and gouache paint,  ink, colored pencil and pastel.

As a result, I am now offering a workshop on making color scales in all media. The first of these fun classes - Color Scales for Artists – will be Friday, November 21st with the Oregon Society of Artists.  This workshop is a companion class to Rene Eisenbart’s “Color  Mixing Demystified” workshop at OSA on November 14th.  … more→

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Treasure in North Carolina

Munsell-Tree-at-VIA-4webI just got back to Portland after teaching three workshops in North Carolina and now have a Munsell Color Tree in the teaching studio at VIA Artistica!

The east coast of NC is famous as the haunt of Blackbeard the pirate. The history is fascinating. Many believe his buried treasure is still out there somewhere along the Outer Banks.

I had no idea starting out on my last teaching trip of the year that I would find so many treasures of my own.

Here’s the story.  … more→

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Highlights from Racine

RacineCarthageI am still recovering from last weekend in Racine. I was so intent on seeing and doing everything that I did not get many good photos. Bummer!

I can’t possibly do justice to the whole weekend so I will just share my personal highlights.  … more→

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Racine Art Museum Symposium

I leave on Thursday for Racine Art Museum’s second Polymer Symposium at the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin.

Racine Art Museum Newsletter OctIt’s an honor to have a number of pieces in both the RAM (in)Organic show and the A Revisioning: New Works in Polymer show at the H.F. Johnson Gallery at Carthage College. I’m looking forward to seeing the RAM show at a preview reception on Friday night and heading to Carthage on Saturday afternoon to see the show at the gallery.

It was especially fun to see “Temptation” featured in the Racine Art Museum newsletter that went out last week.


MaggioRAMGrowIIIcropped4webHere’s another new piece from RAM’s (in)Organic show.

“Grow III” represents the interweaving of the animal and plant world by blurring the lines between snake and vine. 

I will need a larger oven as the pieces grow and grow!


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Serpentine Gothic

Last week I mailed off four pieces for the upcoming “(in) Organic” show at the Racine Art Museum. Here’s one of the pieces along with a short story describing how it came to be.

I was planning on making a loop on loop collar. I had it all sketched out at full scale. I made an 8′ long pinched snake and laid it out alongside the sketch. As I bent the snake into the tight curves that I needed for the loops I started to think that they reminded me of Gothic stone tracery. So I took it in that direction instead.

20130406_Ely_Cathedral_01Serpentine Gothic

I have to admit that I’m thrilled by this accidental discovery. It combines my fascination with serpentine forms and my architectural background in a way that I never could have come up with in my head or even my sketchbooks.  It wasn’t until I saw it coming together before me on the table that the ah-ha moment came.

I played with a number of variations along the way. Little by little the colors shifted to almost neutral, the curves became more regular and the clasp less complicated.

MaggioRAMGothic2I didn’t like the first four drafts. The final piece ended up a golden stone color and close to symmetrical.

Isn’t it amazing how the best ideas arrive from unexpected directions and bonk you on the head! I can’t wait to start exploring the idea of stone tracery more when I get back to the studio in November.

(in)Organic Gallery Guide
Wikipedia on Gothic Tracery
Photo Credit

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