Posted on March 4, 2015

These Paints Can Teach Us a Lot About Labeling

Henry Wolff, American Renaissance, March 4, 2015

“There’s a set of paints for sale at Hobby Lobby that are turning heads because one is red and the other is blue.” That’s how the New York Post introduced a description of two new mixed paints that are blends of red paint and blue paint.

It’s just the most recent story of paint mixtures with such dramatic variations in hue they’re seen by many as altogether different colors.

Each of these blends and their accompanying images is a reminder of how fluid and subjective the color categories we’re all familiar with are.

What “red and blue mixes” can teach us about colors: they’re not real

The story of the Hobby Lobby paints, and stories similar to it, are actually just overblown reports of paint mixtures which, because of normal variations in the blending process, appear different to the eye.

But they’re fascinating because they highlight just how flimsy and open to interpretation the color categories we use in the US and around the world are.

Even the Post’s description of the mixed paints is clumsy, asserting that they’re each “red-blue mixtures,” but stating in the very same sentence that one is red and the other is blue.

And the fact that the two mixtures, despite being combinations of the same two paints, are seen as two different colors proves that there’s a lot more than pigment or chemical makeup informing color descriptions.

It’s a reminder that the color categories we use are fickle, flexible, open to interpretation, and have just as many exceptions as they do rules when it comes to their criteria for categorization–that’s why they have been described as “not real,” meaning:

  • They’re not based on facts that people can even begin to agree on. (If we can’t even get a consensus that mixtures of the same two paints are the same color, where does that leave us?)
  • They’re not permanent. (If an artist decides one day that the since the reddish paint blend included a paint that’s blue, that the reddish blend should be described only as blue, who’s to stop him?)
  • They’re not scientific. (There’s no color spectrometer that will provide a “red” result for the reddish blend and a “blue” result for the blueish blend.)
  • They’re not consistent (Some people describe the reddish blend as “red,” while others call it “magenta.”)

For more on this, read 11 ways color isn’t real.

“Not real” doesn’t mean not important

Of course, none of this changes the fact that the concept of color is hugely important at Hobby Lobby, at Michael’s, and all other arts and crafts stores.

There’s no question that the way manufacturers label paint blends, and how artists see them, will affect sales.

That’s because even though color is highly subjective, artists still choose paints irrationally, based on how they are labeled and their perceived hue. The color categories to which paints are assigned, based arbitrarily on how they look to the manufacturer, can help determine whether an artist chooses one paint or another.

But it’s still important to remember that these consequences are a result of human-created color categories that are based on shaky reasoning and shady motivations. This makes the borders of the various colors impossible to pin down–as the “red and blue” blends demonstrate–and renders color labeling futile.

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published, in a slightly altered form, here.]