Colour Perception and Ageing Eyes

Have you ever wondered if your perception of colour changes through your life span? Well the answer is yes it does.

Red is the first colour recognised by babies and toddlers are most attracted to both red and blue – important if you are designing products for the young.

But as we mature into old age our eye’s lens tends to “yellow” and our pupil size shrinks which results in colours looking dimmer and slightly brownish. Also, most of our lives we see colour before form but mature eyes begin to see form before colour (although creatives often continue to see colour first).

Colours with short wavelengths such as blue are particularly difficult for older people to discriminate. Designers therefore need to pay attention to tonal contrast rather than colour contrast when designing for the elderly. We know that opposite colours on the colour wheel (e.g red and green) have excellent colour contrast but they often don’t have much tonal contrast. The easiest way to see if something has good tonal contrast is to convert an image into black and white.

Look at the pheasant- the coloured image shows excellent colour contrast (complimentary, eye-popping colours of red and green) but convert it into black and white and you will see very little contrast at all. So if older eyes don’t pick up colour contrasts easily, it is important to create tonal contrasts and choose colours with high LRV (light reflectance value) levels to maximise the amount of light that enters the eye. The NCS colour system is able to give percise LRV readings for all their 1,950 standard colours – a necessity because as you can see it’s not as easy to check for tonal contrast as it is for colour contrast.

Broken Hues and Tonal Balance

After looking at complimentary harmony, colour value and proportional harmony in previous posts,  it’s definitely time to have a look at tonal harmony. As with the other principles, the aim of tonal harmony is to create a balanced palette where the eye can feel relaxed.

Again I would urge you to experiment at home by mixing colours yourself. It is the only way you can truly understand what colour mixing can achieve and you will discover it is very easy to create the colour you were searching for. Consider the task like cooking. If you don’t buy ready meals, don’t buy ready made colours either. Colours are a combination of ingredients just like recipes and you know how to alter a curry to satisfy your palette so why not do the same with colour. I am not suggesting you mix the final paint product yourself (far from it, interior paints are a complex arrangement of binders and pigments) but take your paint colour swatch along to your interior paint supplier and they will colour match it for you.

Start with the three primary colours, red, blue and yellow and begin by mixing them in unequal quantities i.e two parts yellow, one part blue, quarter part red. You have now created a “broken hue”. Most of the colours in nature are broken hues and so it is no surprise that these colours have a pleasing natural, earthy look about them. A broken hue is simply a combination of all the primaries in unequal amounts. If you are mixing an interior paint colour, you will probably find these colours too dark so I would suggest adding white. By doing this you have created a broken tint.

Broken hues

So you have experimented and mixed a colour you are happy with but you need another colour for an adjoining room that will tonally compatible. All you need do is keep the “parent” colour the same. In other words, if your main primary was yellow, make sure your new colour also has a parent colour of yellow but you are free to add varying amounts of other colours to it, just keep remembering both colours should share the same parent. These “child” colours will have a family resemblance which allows them tonal harmony.

For speed of understanding, you can try out combinations with water colour paints but make sure if you are taking your colour swatch to a paint supplier to colour match, take an acrylic paint swatch in order to get an accurate colour match from the spectrometer.

Of course the other way to create tonal harmony is by choosing a monochromatic scheme. In other words, only use one hue but vary it with the addition of only black or white. Monochromatic schemes tend to be very calm and have a quiet sophistication about them but will have less interest than other combinations and will therefore require some “layering” (a subject for a future post).

For inspiration on perfect balance, one look at artist Giorgio Morandi ‘s beautiful paintings and you will forever be seeking tonal balance.

A Zesty Palette

If you are colour obsessed, you will already know that it can  be a fairly exhausting attribute. Gone are the days where you can take a walk with barely a thought in your head. You will be unable to stop yourself from constantly analysing colours and you will be calculating how much green is in the yellow of a petal you just spotted. Sound familiar?

Well today, Scotland has woken up to the most glorious sunshine and I intend to get out and catch some photos showing some interesting colours but first I must tell you when I was chopping some lemons for breakfast, I couldn’t help but notice the discarded net on the dining table made a great zesty colour palette…..

Now, if you have ever wondered how to pick a set of interior colours that are all tonally compatible, lookout for my next post where I will be looking at a very easy way of achieving exactly that.