This white dress…or is it blue?

This is probably one of the more unusual posts here, but I have to chime into the discussion about that blue, or white dress. Not so much as a Druid, certainly not as a social and other media junkie, but as a painter. I say it right from the beginning: for the purpose of this article, the actual color of the dress does not matter. At all. It’s totally irrelevant.

When you learn to paint, one of the mantras you hear your teacher say – or should hear her say, at least – is: paint what you see (and not what you think you see.) This is fairly easy for most of the colors, but painting something white is actually difficult. Let’s consider a painting showing a snow scene. When you look at it square inch by square inch, you won’t find much white, actually. The “snow” is mostly going to be blue, maybe darker gray in some areas, and even some very light yellow, depending on the surroundings, or what the painter wants us to believe is in the area. Only the places where the painter wants us to see the direct reflection of light, you would see him using actual white. These are called the highlights, and a good painter would use them sparingly. In fact, you might only find a smidgen of white where the focus point of the painting is.

Still, and this is where we get back to the blue/white dress saga, our brain would process these light blues and grays with the occasional white as snow. White snow. Our mind, the left side of our brain knows that snow is white, and therefore it interprets the colors as something the eyes don’t really see. The mind knows how this white stuff looks like in reality, compares the visual with memories of snow in the shade, or at night, and says, “Ha! That’s white, and it is snow.” This is what happens when we see the dress. There are only a few very small spaces where we see actual pure white in the picture. Since it’s all screen pictures, it would be where we see pixels with an RGB (red, blue, green) value of 250,250,250. This is what computer screens show as white. Everything else in the picture has values between 0 and 249 for each red, green, and blue, meaning that there is no actual white. WhiteDressLook at the inserted picture, someone actually took sample pixels and checked the RGB values. Lo and behold, no white. And no real blue, either.

BUT, our brain is trained to know that, in the real world, white things (snow, or fabric) aren’t completely white, but rather also reflect their surroundings. When we see such a combination, our left brain side immediately interprets these colors as showing something that is white.

As painters, we have to first overcome the tyranny of the mind, allowing ourselves to truly paint what we see (50 shades of not blue) and not actual white, and once we are familiar with the concept, we actually play with it all the time. Not only when we want to paint snow, or white dresses, but also when we want to paint water, or glass. Even in drawing, we need to shut up our mind, and draw what we see. Try drawing a finger pointing at you. You will see, unless you silence your rational mind, you will not be able to draw the lines of your index finger in a way that the whole drawing shows a finger pointing straight at the viewer. And in painting, you must do the same when you want to paint something that’s white; just applying white directly out of the paint tube will bring you nowhere.

The dress, by the way, is, according to its designer, blue. It’s just the light and the reflections in the photo that changes it so much that the minds of some of us interpret it as white. Double mind whammy. And that is what the Druid in me finds fascinating.

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One Response to This white dress…or is it blue?

  1. Susie Souza says:

    Definitely true about the relativity of color, Christian. I groan when I have to choose a paint shade for interior walls, because the interplay of light and adjacent colors creates that ever-shifting palette. But I experienced something that can’t be put down to the usual variations in interpretation. Most of the time the dress is clearly white and gold to me. Then one time I looked (yet again) and was shocked to see it in black and dark blue. Not white tempered by blue shadows, but almost a prussian blue. I looked away for a few moments, and when I returned to the exact same photo, the dress was white and gold. I know some people have experienced this. I think somehow the colors in this photo teeter on a point for which the visual cortex can’t settle on a static definition. Anyway, that’s how I like to explain it, as unscientific as it may sound. A shifting reality….very cool indeed!

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