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The Blue Dress: Trouble in Color City

The image above is from the excellent article on WIRED.

Color made the news last week with a furious debate about the color of a dress. I didn't get it at first. Why all the fuss?

Now I think it's one of the most fascinating topics in the world of color. Why? Because - it's all about lighting - and this is my year to explore color and light!

I originally planned to write this newsletter about the difficulty in describing and naming colors but that idea got sidelined by The Dress. The internet firestorm proved that differences in color perception are much greater than anyone thought possible.

If there is such a huge discrepancy in how we see colors, how can we possibly agree on color names that make sense for everyone?

Horrors! The world of color just shifted under my feet.

It Must Be The Screen

I first heard about The Dress on the radio as I was waking up on Friday morning. Still groggy with sleep, I thought they were talking about the prevalence of white dresses at the Academy Awards. Boy, was I wrong.

Throughout the course of the day I was swamped by texts and emails with links to various articles and funny Facebook posts about The Dress. I had to drop artwork off for a show here in Portland so I did not actually look at a photo of the dress until later in the afternoon.

I saw it as blue and black, definitely not white and gold. I figured that all the controversy must be based on seeing it on different monitors and went back to work.

The first thing my husband asked me when I got home was - "Have you seen all the stuff about The Dress?" "Of course." I said. "Folks have been sending me stuff all day long. I don't get what all the fuss is about."


He said he thought the dress was white and gold.

"Oh for pete's sake! It's not white and gold! We need to look at it on the same screen."

We did. We even made sure we were at the same angle to the screen.

He saw it as white and gold. I saw it as blue and black.


Play with the Dress Colors

Matt Mastracchi created a slider that let's you play
with variations from blue /black to white/ gold.

Click on the image to see the working version.

Have fun!

This is BIG

After teaching color classes for twenty years, I know that it's possible for people to see color differently. I teach about Color Constancy, about Simulaneous Contrast /Color Shifts, about Shadow Colors and about Optical Illusions. I know that "what a color is" and "what a color appears to be" are two different things.

But how can one person see blue where another sees white? And what makes someone see black while the person next to them sees gold?

It's not color blindness. It's not gender biased. It's not white balance. It's not a difference in digital color calibration. What is it??

The answer boils down to a difference in how each of our brains interprets the illumination information sent by they eye. 

“Our visual system is supposed to throw away information about the illuminant and extract information about the actual reflectance,” Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, told Wired. 

Aha! It's all about the light! The illustration above from the NYT article shows various interpretations of the illumination information. 

Does it Matter Where you Look First?

The only time I saw the dress as white and gold was when just the top of the photo appeared as I scrolled down yet another article. For a split second, and much to my surprise, I saw the white and gold version. It disappeared as more of the photo showed up on the screen.

I split the photo into two sections and, sure enough, the illumination information is different depending on whether you focus first on the upper or lower half of the image.

Could this be exaggerating the difference?

Voting on the Color of the Dress

I am still processing the results of this poll on Buzzfeed. The last time I checked there were over 3 million votes. Over two-thirds voted for the White/Gold version of the dress. Yikes!! Does that mean I see colors differently from most of the population? How can I teach about color if I see it so differently?

I prefer to think, having studied color for so long, that I see color better now than I ever did. I like to think that I interpret lighting conditions accurately. But it that really true?

Is it possible to learn to see colors based on objective standards instead of subjective interpretation? Would that be any fun??? 

More Dress Links

As popular as he is, George Takai is not the reason the Color of the Dress went viral. The personal experience of hearing one person call the dress white when you see it as blue - or vice-versa - is not easily dismissed. It calls into question everything you thought you knew about color.

Here's a collection of blog posts and articles about The Color of the Dress. I'll be reading them all and thinking much more about what it all means. 

The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of This Dress

A Scientific Tale of Two Dresses

New York Times 
Is That Dress White and Gold or Blue and Black?

Is The Dress blue and black or white and gold? The answer lies in vision psychology

IFL Science
The Science Of Why This Dress Looks Different Colors To Different People

Washington Post
The inside story of the ‘white dress, blue dress’ drama that divided a planet

Why Your Brain Thinks That Blue Dress Looks White

Final Word on the Dress

Outpost Pictures - From Film Colorist Chris Tomberlin
What color is this dress? Why you need a good colorist…

What The Hell Is Wrong With Your Eyes? A Dress Explainer

Will the Real Dress Please Stand Up

After all the debate, The Dress turned out to be royal blue and black. 

"Those who originally saw The Dress as blue and black should not be too smug, though. Some may argue that colour itself is just a construct imposed by the brain to make sense of the world. What enters the eye is just a spectrum of wavelengths of light, we turn that into something with category boundaries and labels and connotations.

But one thing’s for certain; The Dress is a brilliant example of how breaking the perceptual system helps us to learn more about how our brains work."       Marie Rogers for the Guardian

I agree. The Dress is a reminder that color perception is outrageously complex.

Since Friday I've shown many people the original photo of the Dress. My question is not "What colors is this dress? My question is "What colors do you see? Realizing that there is no right or wrong answer was both enlightening (pun intended!) and humbling. Stay tuned!

Big Hugs,


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