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What Colour Is That Dress?

What Colour Is That Dress?

Recently a Tumblr blog post asked "What colour is this dress?". The post and responses to it became an internet sensation, sparking global debate about the colour of that bodycon dress. Some saw it as black an blue, others as white and gold and it seems that very few people could explain why we saw it differently. 

There was however a simple scientific answer relating to our inbuilt white balance filtering. The saga of the dress did get me thinking about colour and pigment. It reminded me of a canvas swatch I painted about 10 years ago to demonstrate the quality of genuine pigment in artists paint. 

On the left of the canvas I painted swatch with Chromacryl warm blue. On the right side of the canvas I painted with Atelier ultramarine blue. When they were painted they looked very similar in colour, hue and opacity. Over the past decade the canvas has been inside Art House, not exposed to any direct sunlight. As you can see the Chromacryl has all but faded to grey and has become transparent. The Atelier however has retained all its qualities and remains vibrant and opaque. 

The difference: Chromacryl is a student quality paint that is made using cheap synthetic pigment. Its main use is in teaching students how to push the paint across a canvas with a brush. Atelier, in contrast, is an artist's quality paint made from genuine pigment which is lightfast. Some of those pigments can be difficult to source and therefor the cost of genuine artists paint is always more than the cheaper in quality student paint. Genuine lapis lazuli for example is sourced in the middle east.

The dillemna: While trained artists understand quality of pigment, many painters remain unaware of the difference and are attracted to the convenience of lower priced paint and other products. While this might be temporarily good for the painters wallet, its a disaster for the buyer and the painters long term reputation and career. 

The recommendation: If you are buying a painting from a reputable artist, you probably have nothing to worry about. If you are buying a painting from a lesser known  artist, ask them what paint they use and if its artist quality. If you are a painter and you want to sell your work, avoid using cheaper paints and other products.  The two dollar shop does not sell artist quality products. Respect the quality of your own work and ensure the buyer will be seeing what you painted decades later, rather that seeing a shadowy vanishing act. Imagine if Vincent Van Gough had used cheap pigment on Starry Night?

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