Seeing in Colour

Adrienne Chinn and I are very much looking forward to meeting you this summer in the Experts Theatre at the House & Garden Festival , where we will be talking about the glorious impact of colour and how to bring colour into your home.  

Ahead of our presentations, we would like to share some fascinating facts about the way we see colour because the anatomy of the eye and the core principles of colour theory are closely linked! 

We are sure that most of you have experienced afterimage - a type of optical illusion where an image continues to appear briefly after the exposure to the image has ended.

You will see an example of afterimage if you stare at the red dot, below, for 30 seconds or so, and then focus on the blue cross.  Can you see the complementary afterimage? 

In colour theory, the word ‘complementary’ means colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.  


Colour Wheel
Colour Wheel



So, if you stare at a red dot, the afterimage produced in the eye will be a blue/green dot – the colours that lie directly opposite each other on the colour wheel! 

Here is another eye experiment.  Place a sheet of white paper over the right half of the green rectangle below; stare at the central cross for 30 seconds. Remove the paper and continue to stare at the cross.  Note how the fresh parts of your eye see a strong saturated colour, but there is a decrease in perceived saturation in the areas that have been looking green from the start.  

In your eye, photoreceptors (cone cells) are linked together in opposing colour pairs: blue with yellow, and red with green.  If you stare long enough at a green image, you temporarily exhaust the ability of your eye to perceive the colour green.  So, when you shift your focus to a blank, white area, while the green receptor cells cannot fire for a while, their partner or opponent cells (responsible for perceiving red) can.  

So – at this time – white light entering the eye, instead of stimulating both green and red receptors (and making white), can only activate the red ones and hence you experience a brief red (or pinkish) afterimage!

If you would like to know how designers use this understanding of the eye’s response to complementary colours, then we recommend that you come along to see us talk at the House and Garden Festival in June!  


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