Oops! Color Theory Is Based on an Error

How the eye perceives color is crucial to the print industry



Greg Cholmondeley


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What if everything you knew about color perception was based on a mistake? Roxana Bujack and her team at Los Alamos National Laboratory suspect that’s true. While these scientists have identified the problem, they don’t have a solution—but don’t throw out your color management systems just yet! Instead, perhaps you should be ready to upgrade your color systems in a few years.


Here’s the problem. Over 100 years ago, the physicists and mathematicians Bernhard Riemann, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Erwin Schrödinger came up with a mathematical model for how the human eye perceives color. You’ve certainly seen graphical representations of the color space as a sort of 3D pyramid of red, green, and blue colors. It’s beautiful with either straight (Euclidean geometry) or slightly curving (Riemannian geometry) lines, but it is also wrong.



Bujack’s team incorporated biology and psychology into the mix and found that the human eye does not perceive color anywhere near as smoothly as our current model. The curves are a lot more organic in shape. In particular, the current model predicts that the perceived difference between two widely different color shades is simply the sum of the differences between every small shade in between them. However, this study showed that isn’t how our eyes work. The perceived color difference between two colors is significantly less than the sum of the shades in between.


This realization is crucial to the printing industry because we use color modeling for mapping how presses print color to the way we perceive it. A lot of science has gone into developing these systems, and they do a fabulous job; however, we’ve just learned that they’re all based upon a faulty premise. Imagine how much better our printed (and video) image quality will appear once the underlying models more accurately represent how we really see color.


Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

This news is huge, but please realize that while these scientists published these findings as the article titled The non-Riemannian nature of perceptual color space in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they don’t yet have an answer on how to correct the color model in a way that accommodates the discrepancies they found. They just now know that the existing model is broken. So, here are my recommendations:

  • Use existing color management software today because it delivers incredible and consistent results.
  • Expect to replace or upgrade your color management solutions in a few years.
  • Save some of today’s best work so that you can pull it out in 5-10 years and mutter, “I can’t believe we were able to sell that quality.”


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