Screen Printing:

Color: In the Eye of the Beholder

By Mark Brouillard, Contributing Writer

May 5, 2014

Color is an ambiguous word in that we all interpret color differently. When a customer asks you for a custom gallon of sky blue ink, what color are they really asking for? Is it the pale blue when the sun is rising, or the red-blue when it is setting? What does the sky look like at high noon, or in smog-filled valleys, or at the top of the Rocky Mountains?  

So what are you to sell the customer? Make that person show you the color they want (and even that can be tough). Following are a few things you may want to consider when you are at this point in selling, making, calling out, or referring to a gallon of the aforementioned sky blue:

1.    Metamerism
2.    Light box
3.    Munsell hue test
4.    The gender of the person asking for the color
5.    Ishihara color test

Metamerism is the matching of the apparent color of objects with different spectral power distributions. What does that really mean? Colors may change their hues/tones when using different light sources.

For example, I used to have three different draw downs of the “same” yellow ink. When viewed under standard fluorescent light fixtures, they all matched. If you took the same three yellow colors outside into the daylight, one would still be yellow, but the other two would be green and red (not quite that extreme, but I think you get the point).

That brings me to my second point: using a light box. This extremely valuable tool allows you to look at the color using different light sources. Most light boxes have four light sources: D65 (the International standard for artificial daylight), CWF (cool white fluorescent), F (incandescent light), and UV (ultraviolet). Why all the different light sources? To ensure that we are all looking at the color(s) the same way.

This also will show you whether a color will be metameric or show metamerism. Some common causes of metamerism are the use of fluorescent or optically brightened components, which can be seen by using the UV light source. Anyone who makes custom colors should have a light box.  There are two things to consider when using a light box. First, the bulbs are only good for about 1,500 hours before replacement is needed. Secondly, consider having a fifth light source (U30 — warm white fluorescent).

The Munsell hue test is just one part of the Munsell color system. The hue test is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects to anyone doing custom colors. There are tests that you can do via the Internet that will help you see your weakness in perceived color. Some pundits will say that this can’t be done over the Internet, but I beg to differ. Even if you don’t have the most high-tech computer or monitor, it can still be done and be relevant.

The basics involve aligning tiles that are changing from one hue to another. Sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? Try it and see how good you are at distinguishing slight hue differences. Once done, the computer will give you a score. (For what it’s worth, I got a score of 0, which — by the way — is a perfect score.) One of my colleagues got an 8, while another person I know got a 475. Both were males, which brings me to my next point.

Having a male customer or designer versus a female can play a huge role in color interpretation. Research has indicated that in America, 10% of the male population is colorblind, with an even larger number having some type of color deficiency. The female population has a colorblindness rate of less that 1% (the latest figure I saw was less than 0.1%).  So gender makes a difference when it comes to “seeing” color. If you want to have a little fun with your staff, have them take the Munsell hue test to see who can get the lowest score. It’s hard to cheat on this one.

This brings me to my final point: the Ishihara color test, which is a simple way to test for color perception. It is designed to test for the most common color vision defect: red-green color deficiencies. It is a rather simple test of looking at dots and telling what number you see. It is not a trick or a gimmick.  

The above factors are meant to make you consider the tools you have. Do you have a light box?  Can you tell what metamerism is? Can you tell a subtle difference in hue? Does one of your employees or co-workers have color deficiencies? Do you understand that color perception between genders is a valid consideration? These things will help give you a better understanding of color.

Plus, you’ll also have a fun retort if someone ever asks you for sky blue. Just tell the person that color — like beauty — is in the eye of the beholder.

Mark Brouillard is a product manager for International Coatings Co. Inc. For more information or to comment on this article, email Mark at