Friday, January 20, 2012

Who's Afraid of Metamerism?

I often say that color is a moving target, because it plays tricks on us by changing its appearance as its surroundings and circumstances change, and depending on who's looking at it. Color is never static.

Metamerism, or metameric failure, is one of those color tricks, or better yet, phenomenon, you may have encountered, without realizing that it was a common occurrence with a name and scientific explanation. It's a technical topic, but think of it simply as the tendency of color to look different in different situations.

Have you ever chosen a paint color that was perfect during the day under natural light, but all wrong at night under artificial light? That's a metameric failure, and it happens a lot...

There are several types of metameric failure:

  • LIGHTING:  Two colors appear to match under one light source but don't match under another.
  • OBSERVER:  We all see color differently because of our physical characteristics, and because color is light, not the property of an object.
  • GEOMETRIC:  The same color viewed from one angle doesn't match when viewed from another angle. Attributes like texture and gloss can contribute to the problem.
  • FIELD:  Colors that appear to match when used in small areas don't match when used in large ones.


Take this ceiling, for example. The paint on the ceiling came from the same can as the paint on the wall, yet it looks like a different color. It's an example of geometric metamerism.

Is there any way to avoid these metameric failures? The answer is yes and no. To me, one of the most challenging things about working with color is that the effect of color is cumulative, and it's also specific to the context in which it's used. In other words, no one really knows how well colors will work until all the paint is applied. And don't plan on avoiding the problem by copying someone else's colors, even if you love them. They'll look completely different in your house, and may not work.

Having said that, there are things you can do to decrease the likelihood of metameric surprises:

  • Always make large paint color samples, at least 2 x 3 feet. 
  • View the samples in the room where they'll be used. Study them throughout the day as the natural light  changes, and at night under artificial light.
  • Always view paint samples in the orientation in which they'll be applied, because the color will change!
  • Be alert to the effect of other colors in the room, particularly on large areas. Hardwood floors, for example, often have a yellow cast that's reflected on the ceiling and walls. (Maybe the friend with colors you love has wall to wall carpeting, not hardwood...)
  • Color applied to a large area will appear darker than it will when used in a small area. You may want to sample a color that's a shade lighter.
  • Bright colors will look even brighter when applied to large areas. Resist the impulse to choose the bright orange that's on trend right now, and sample an orange that's a little "earthier".

Now add the human factor to all these variables. Let's say that you love purple. You want to paint the dining room a sophisticated eggplant, but your spouse has an emotional response to the word "purple" that prevents seeing any member of the purple family in a favorable way...  That's SPOUSAL METAMERISM...and no, I don't have an answer for that one...

1 comment:

  1. Nice to put a name to a problem rather than "general screw-up" ;-)

    this is what happened with the (I thought) light pink of my halls turning into Pepto Dismal!

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