The many nuances of the color white have been on my mind lately. Some time ago I visited an exhibition of monochrome white paintings by Qiu Shihua (read my blog article here). At first glance, these painting just seem to show white canvases. But when looking for longer times, extremely nuanced white landscapes rise out of the mist. If given the opportunity and longer viewing times, the human eye can distiguish extremely fine nuances of white.
Then I read the book „100 Whites“ by Japanese designer Kenya Hara. It contains short essays on 100 different shades of white. I had expected a bit more aesthetic insight from this book. It contains many personal anecdotes and obscure references to the Japanese art scene. Still, it was definitely worth the read. The book encourages to look at the different shades of white that objects such as paper, eggshell, bone, milk etc. have. Naturally white materials are a good way of approaching different shades of white. Many named shades of white are called after such materials, such as the colors ivory, seashell, cornsilk, old lace, cream, and many others.
Recently I designed a calendar for 2021 with impressionist paintings (read the blog article here). The first picture shown is a snow scene by Claude Monet (The magpie, 1869). The picture shows areas of sun and shade in the snowy landscape. Depicting scenes under different lighting conditions was a major topic for the impressionists (more information on that see below). The downloaded image I color corrected as best as I could. But a very slight reddish tint remained. Printing it on my home office printer, it looked fine. But the final print from the printer’s shop had a reddish tint that bothered me. Apparently, slight color shifts in the color white in display media and print are much more perceptible than with other colors.
Now, in February 2021, the heaviest snowfall in years occurred in Essen. I enjoyed taking long walks in the snowy landscape. Here again I noticed the many nuances shades of white. Normally our brain filters such impressions out, an object’s color is perceived as constant under different lighting conditions. This effect is called color constancy. But really looking, one notices snow is never purely white. Under different lighting circumstance and in different conditions snow comes in many shades:
- Blueish white early in the morning
- Slightly blue tinted in full sunlight at noon
- Purplish white in the shade
- Grey when wet
- Orangeish white in the afternoon sun
- Pinkish at sunset
- Deep blue under the night sky
- Orange in artificial streelighting
The following photos give an idea of these many shades. It is not possible to accurately capture such subtle shades with basic photo equipment.
The many shades of white visible in snowy landscapes were are also depicted in impressionist paintings. Capturing the effect that different lighting conditions have on a scene, was one of the major goals of impressionist painters. Claude Monet did several series of works where he painted the exact same motive under different lighting conditions. The best known is probably the series showing the cathedral of Rouen.
Below two examples of impressionist paintings showing varying shades of white in the snow.
It is impossible to determine digitally how these painting look in reality. In any case, aging processes entail that the paintings look different today than when they were painted. Doing an image search shows the wide variety in color shift of digitized images due to different cameras and image processing involved. Some of these do look quite garish.
So, in conclusion, can anything practical be learned from these musings? For minimalist design, making use of large areas of whitespace, it can make sense to experiment with slightly off tones of white. The human eye is capable of detecting an extremely high number of colors. It is estimated that 100 000 to 10 000 000 colors can be distinguished. We are capable of distiguishing extremely nuanced shades of white if given the oppurtunity and time. Natural materials are a good entry point for becoming aware of different qualities of the color white. The wikipedia article on shades of white lists many named shades.
Lighting conditions play a big role in how we perceive white. Due to the psychological effect of color constancy we are normally not aware of these shifts in shade.
There is also a big caveat to this however, shades of white are extremely susceptible to color shifts when photographed, displayed on different screens, and printed. This can lead to some undesired garish results (see picture of search results above). White seems to be a color where subtle shift in shade are more disturbing than in other colors. My guess is that this is the case, because we can clearly perceive and name such color shifts as blueish, reddisch, greenish etc.
Blog post history:
26.02.2021: First version published
01.03.2021: Rewriting of text passages to make clearer statements and emphasize key takeways