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How We See Color

by Tracy Rubert | October 12, 2016

Everyone loves color. Color affects our moods and even our physiology: It can make us happy, stimulate our appetites, energize us, calm us, or even make us sleepy. As a nail tech, you’re even more immersed in color than most people; for a good part of every day, you are working with color — considering it, choosing it, and applying it to fingernails and toenails in an endless variety of hues. But why do some people love certain colors while others are averse to them? And how exactly do we see color?

The Science
Color is actually a collaboration between our eyes and our brains, according to pantone.com. The human eye has millions of tiny light receptors that transmit information to our brains, and our brains translate this information into various colors. Objects do not inherently possess color; rather, an object’s surface reflects certain colors and absorbs others — depending on the quality of the object’s surface — and the human eye perceives this light reflection or lack thereof as color. A bunch of cherries, for example, is not in itself red, but is reflecting the wavelengths we see as red.

Those reflected wavelengths are processed by the eye’s light receptors into nerve impulses, and our optic nerve sends the impulses to our cortex. The light receptors are of two types — rods and cones — and each perceives different types of information or light. We have more than 120 rods in each eye, which perceive mostly black and white. We have about six million cones in each eye, which transmit the long, medium, or short wavelengths of light that allow us to perceive thousands of colors: red, green, blue, and everything in between.  

But what about so-called “color blind” people? According to Web MD, our cone receptors perceive different amounts of the three basic colors: red, blue, and green. When we lack one of these types of cones or they are impaired, we may not see one of these three basic colors, or they may appear as off-shades or different colors entirely. Usually color blindness is genetic, but it can also happen as a result of injury to the eye or acquired eye diseases, such as cataracts. Worldwide, color blindness affects about one in 12 men, and one in 200 women, according to colourblindawareness.org.

Do You See What I See?
Why do people have color preferences? Is the way we see color subjective? In other words, is the blue I see the same blue you see?

“There is a lot of variability in how people see color but if you call something the same color as someone else, they are probably seeing something very similar to what you see,” explains Jay Neitz PhD, Bishop Professor at University of Washington School of Medicine and founder of neitzvision.com.

Colors seen most differently are in the blue-green part of the spectrum, Neitz says.  A color that has some blue and some green in it can look nearly pure blue to one person and nearly pure green to another. This leads to arguments because one person will insist the color is blue and the other will say it’s green. And small things can affect how we see colors. Remember the photo of the blue/black or white/gold striped dress that was floating around the Internet last year? It’s a perfect example.  “The dress really was whiter near the upper right shoulder and bluer near the left hem,” says Neitz. “If a person’s attention is first drawn to the shoulder, they are more likely to see it as white.  Also, people are influenced by the color of light they think is falling on the dress; if the surroundings in the photo make a person think that the light falling on the dress is bluish then they attribute the blue color in the dress to the lighting and would tend to see it as white. The dress was a ‘perfect storm’ of little things that all add together to make for big differences in perception.”

Is it possible we are really seeing two different colors but we’ve learned to call them the same name? “It’s fun to think about how two people might be seeing totally different colors but call them the same name,” says Neitz. “But color is more powerful than language. Each color has its own effect on us and it is quite universal. Warm colors like yellow, orange, and red are exciting and invigorating. Blues and violets are calming. The effect colors have on us is fascinating. Colors can inspire a sense of great beauty or joy. They can also be disgusting. They can convey a huge amount of information, like a subway map.  And they can be awe-inspiring like an amazing sunset or a scene of autumn leaves.”

And here’s something else to ponder: There are colors in existence that humans cannot see. Ultraviolet light, for example, can’t be perceived by humans, but it can be seen by many birds, fish, and some insects, most notably bees. “Our color vision is very limited,” says Neitz. “There are many possible colors we don’t see.”

Color Theory
Choosing the right shades for a client’s skin tone is both a science and an art. It’s important to take into consideration whether a client has fair, medium, or dark skin, and also the skin’s undertone — is it cool or warm? Look at a client’s eye color and natural hair color to establish undertones. You can also look at the veins on the inner wrist: If they appear blue, undertones are likely cool; greenish appearing veins indicate warm undertones. Below is a quick reference for which colors will suit which skin tone best.

Cool Undertones

Fair Skin: Avoid very dark colors. Look for colors with a blue undertone in light to medium shades of pink and red. Silver is also a good choice. Avoid yellow, gold, and green.

Medium Skin: Avoid black and orange. Opt for pale cool shades, such as mauve, blue and lavender.

Dark Skin: Avoid yellow, green, beige, and brown. Deep cool tones such as berry and grape, and jewel tones like navy and bright pink work best.

Warm Undertones

Fair Skin: Avoid very dark blues and greens. Try warm pink, orange, coral, and beige.

Medium Skin: The best colors are ones with very yellow undertones, like gold, copper, and caramel. Bright coral is especially flattering on warm, tan skin tones.

Dark Skin: This is the most versatile skin tone and looks good in almost any color. Deep jewel tones — purple, ruby red, dark green — work especially well.

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