Simultaneous Contrast: How Your Environment Affects Color Perception


This article originally appeared on Republished with permission of the author. ©Martha DiMeo 2013


There is a conversation around color management that is often met with much resistance and sometimes skepticism. If I told you the color of your walls affect the way you see color on your monitor would you believe me?

When I work with graphic designers to set up a color-managed workflow, the necessary changes that must be made to their offices and work spaces to create a color-friendly environment are not often well received. I fully understand why. Designers—as do I—love to work in sun-filled rooms with brightly colored walls. It’s inviting, friendly, and good for the spirit. Unfortunately, it is detrimental to our ability to accurately evaluate color. Let me explain—and show you—why.

How Our Eyes Trick Us

In the photo below, stare at the cross mark on the left-side of the image for 10–15 seconds. Now shift your gaze to the cross mark on the portrait. Magic! The yellow cast on the right-side of the face is gone and the two halves of the face blend together.


Simultaneous Contrast

Is it really magic? No, not magic, but rather a feature of the human visual system; an illusion called simultaneous contrast.

If you would like to try it again, stare at something neutral—such as a piece of white paper—for a few seconds, and then begin the test again. 

Simultaneous Contrast Defined

Simultaneous contrast as defined in the book Real World Color Management 2nd Edition (authors Bruce Fraser, Chris Murphy, Fred Bunting)—“The effect where the perception of a color is affected by other colors seen simultaneously in the same field of view causes you to perceive the opposite color of what you were just looking.”

In other words, when you stare at the blue and yellow stripes in the above photo, then move your gaze to the photograph, the cooler side of the face is perceived warmer, and the warmer side of the face is perceived cooler creating the illusion that the two sides of the face match.

Getting Back To The Color of Your Walls

If your office has brightly colored yellow walls for instance, when you move your gaze from the yellow walls to the photograph on your computer, it is going to look bluer, or cooler than it actually is. Moreover, you won’t know your visual system is playing a trick. As a result, you may think the photograph needs to be color–corrected. (Warmer flesh tones are usually more pleasing than cooler tones but that's a topic for another time.)

The Solution

The solution is to paint the walls of any room where critical color work is performed a neutral gray. The industry standard is Neutral Gray N7/N8 paint from GTI Munsell. I do understand most graphic designers are just not going to do this.

Here's the thing, if the focus of your work is layout and design and does not involve color-critical work then having brightly painted walls is fine. But, for designers who review, evaluate, and retouch photographs, or want to be precise with color selection for graphic elements, I advise two things. If you can’t live with gray walls, then at least paint them white. If white is not doable either, then be aware you cannot accurately review, evaluate, or edit color. Leave that task to a colleague or other trusted professional who is working in a color-managed, color-friendly environment. I can’t stress it enough— with anything other than neutral painted walls, your color perception is compromised.

Do You See What I See?

This is just the tip of the iceberg in implementing a color-managed workflow. The other major environmental factor is the lighting in your workspace (Remember I mentioned those sun-filled offices we all love? Not good.) If you are interested in having me cover other topics related to color management—lighting, display calibration, device profiling, image profiles, color spaces, application settings, capture to print color-managed workflow—drop me a line about the topics that are of most interest to you. I want to help you achieve consistent, predictable, and repeatable color.

Share This Cool Visual Illusion

Find this topic fascinating? You are welcome to download the photo for personal or educational use. Share with colleagues; post on your site, or maybe even use it for interesting cocktail conversation. ;-)  I do ask, if you share the image online, a link back to would be much appreciated.

If you would like to use the photo for commercial use, feel free to contact me through the Contact Us page on or by phone, 617-855-8474, to arrange licensing. (A high-res file, suitable for print reproduction, is also available.)

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Visit the ChromaQueen blog for more informative articles on color management, color design, image enhancement, photo retouching, and photo editing written specifically for the graphic design and photography community.

Martha DiMeo is intensely passionate about photography, Photoshop, and superb color reproduction. During the course of her 25 year career Martha has worked as a staff photographer for Hallmark Cards, as a Digital Imaging Specialist for leading magazine titles (The New Yorker, Fortune, People) and has established and managed in-house prepress and art production departments (Cahners Business Information, Elegant Publishing). Her entrepreneurial spirit lead her to launch, a photo editing services company specializing in photo retouching and color correction for books, magazines, art publishers, and marketing and advertising clients. Martha would be delighted to talk to you about your next color correction and retouching project. To get started, take advantage of the free image evaluation service offered through the ChromaQueen site. Upload files to receive a complimentary, no obligation, review of your images. She can be reached at 617-855-8474.

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