The Science Behind Human Color Vision

PPG's Color Experts Explain the Various Factors that Affect How We Experience Color

January 2023

Blog tag icon COLOR

People often experience colors differently since many factors impact how we perceive them.

A perfect example is the now famous dress that turned into a social media phenomenon back in 2015. Was the dress black and blue or white and gold?

While it was eventually confirmed to be black and blue, the intense debate challenged what scientists knew at that time about color vision.

After years of research, it is believed that how we each saw "the dress" depended on assumptions that our brains made about the dress being in natural light (white and gold) or artificial light conditions (blue and black) and how it filtered that information.

As experts in color, color stylists and consultants have the unique ability to see the tiniest variations in saturation, hues and shades. This skill is invaluable to customers who rely on their expertise to select the perfect color, in just the right shade, for every application.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, color perception is defined as the mental processing of chromatic signals (color vision) from the eye by the visual cortex where they are converted into symbolic representations. Color perception involves numerous neurons and is influenced not only by the distribution of wavelengths from the object in sight, but also by that object’s background color and the brightness contrast at its boundary.

How we experience color is a combination of our innate or learned color perception and various physical and neurological factors.

PPG's color panels

Six Main Factors That Influence Color Perception

For most of us, the slight differences in how we see color has no major impact on our daily lives. But that is not the case for stylists whose customers depend on precision to communicate and translate color effectively. Issues with color can halt the progress of a project or negatively impact sales.

To be effective, stylists are acutely aware of the many factors that influence color perception.


Lighting is the most principal factor in color perception. As humans, we can only see objects that reflect light. How the light is reflected determines the color that our brains perceive. Colors can look different depending on the spectral composition of the light source under which an object is viewed. For example, a bright red car viewed in the artificial light of a gas station or streetlamp will look quite different when viewed in sunlight. Product designers often check for color consistency across different controlled lighting conditions.


As we age, the lens of the eye gradually yellows which influences color perception. A yellowing lens tends to absorb and scatter blue light, making it difficult to see variations in shades of blue, green and violet. As we age, colors appear to be more muted and less vibrant, while contrasts between colors become less noticeable.

Poor Color Memory

Color perception is rooted in both physical and neurological realms. Although we can differentiate different hues, our brains store them as basic, general hues. When we try to remember a precise color, our brain leans to familiar shades.

Physical well-being

Mood is another characteristic that affects our perception. While emotion plays a role, there are also physical factors. For example, dopamine, the neurotransmitter that affects feelings of well-being, is linked to color perception. Research indicates that low levels of dopamine can change how people see colors, particularly blues and yellows.

Our eyes tire easily. When we stare at an object for longer than a few seconds, chemicals in our eyes start to deplete and begin sending incorrect information to our brains. This results in retina fatigue, a condition that also influences how we perceive color.

Finally, several commonly prescribed medications can also affect how we see color. For example, one drug used to treat heart conditions can lead to yellow-tinted vision and hinder ability to perceive differences between colors.

Backgrounds Effects

Colors can appear quite different depending on the surroundings in which they are viewed. For example, an object evaluated on a blue background will look less blue than it is. Similarly, a red spot on an orange background will look less orange than it otherwise would.

For color stylists, light boxes are tools of the trade and essential to visually assess color samples. Have you ever wondered why these light box cabinets are gray?

Gray is an intentional choice as a neutral with minor impact on color perception. Since our eyes can be influenced very easily by vibrant colors, a neutral gray is the least distracting.

Viewing Angles

Viewing an object from slightly different angles can make colors appear brighter or darker, especially ones that contain metallic or translucent pigments. At certain angles, metallics will appear lighter than they are in reality.

The Subjectivity of Seeing Colors

As we have learned, there are many physical and neurological factors that influence our ability to perceive colors. This makes objective, high-quality color management impossible to achieve with eyesight alone.

To accurately identify and reproduce colors that meet customers' expectations, color professionals utilize an array of tools and processes such as spectrophotometers, software and light boxes.

These tools are designed to remove the subjectivity of human color perception and help to assess color across a variety of lighting conditions and angles to ensure the right color is selected every time.

Interested in color? Find out more in our blog >