Is it blue? Is it green? Why you and your customers may see color differently

by Brian Sodoma

Painting professionals offer expertise in the best painting application practices, but most are not color experts. That’s why many pros working with customers who need help choosing a color may have some trepidation about offering guidance.

In some situations, a pro may even find that they see a color sample completely differently from a customer. A customer may, for example, reference a color sample as ‘green’ when the pro may see it as ‘blue.’ Chances are, these different perceptions are not just a communication error. In fact, the same color sample two individuals observe may indeed appear differently to each of them. Here’s a look at why color perception varies from person to person and how pros can handle these situations with customers.


Color perception has been a long-time research curiosity for Jay Neitz, Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He explains that yellow is the one color all people see exactly the same. At the same time, the picture isn’t quite that clear when it comes to green and blue—and for good reason.

Our eyes contain two types of photoreceptors: rods, which are sensitive to light and dark, and cones, which detect red, green and blue colors. The ratio of red-detecting cones versus green cones makes the greatest impact on whether a person sees more green versus more blue in a color sample, Neitz explained. To those with a higher number of green than red cones, “the world is greener to them,” the professor said. Those with a higher number of red cones, however, see more blue.

“Those with northern European ancestry tend to have fewer green cones, relative to red ones. And those of Asian and African decent have more green cones,” he said. This explains why when individuals from these groups are looking at the same color, they may see if differently.


Kenny Thomas, senior applications specialist for Datacolor, a color management company offering tools and solutions to help painters and others navigate color choices, says reasons beyond differences in our eyes’ photoreceptors can factor into color perception, as well.

Lighting, whether it’s diffused or direct, and a surface’s sheen can impact how someone sees color. For example, diffused light can make a glossy paint look like a matte finish, which can influence how someone describes or visualizes a color.

Personal influences and lifestyle can also contribute to perception, Thomas added. Elements like long-term exposure to certain colors, age, disease and medications can also influence color perception for individuals. If, for example, a person wears blue-blocking sunglasses each day, Thomas explained, that lack of exposure to blue light will influence how a person perceives all colors.

Creative naming of color samples can also conjure up feelings and perceptions as well.

“When trying to sell paint, the name of the color can be very evocative. … I’m not sure if names are particularly useful in describing the color though. If we break it down to simple phrasings such as ‘yellow-ish,’ ‘blue-ish,’ ‘stronger,’ ‘lighter,’ that standard language can be more effective,” he said.

Ultimately, when dealing with customers, being ‘right’ about a color’s name or attributes is not the goal. Encourage sampling colors under a variety of lighting situations at different times of day in their home, Thomas said.

“Color depends on the combination of light, an object, and the observer. Change any one of those three things and you change the color perception,” Thomas added. “I say ‘get a sample, try it out and live with it before painting.’”

For more articles about color, as well as other topics related to running your painting business, visit

Current Issue

Current IssueRead the current issue in page-turner format.





Free Subscription

Sign up for your FREE subscription to inPAINT magazine, delivered directly to your mailbox.

Sign up