Why are paint colors so hard to pick?

It's mostly due to metamerism which sounds scary but it's not



Don't sweat it. We all are. As Paint & Fine Finishes manager Dan Flaherty explains in the latest short video from Murphy Bros. metamerism has to do with how we each see color differently.


We’ve blogged before about the fear we all have of picking the wrong paint color—called Paint Paralysis—a psychological condition, also known as the fear of getting it wrong. You might think that once you’re past that fear all is drip free and dry to the touch? Not even close. Because now you have to confront and understand that which is partly physics and partly physiological— metamerism.


So what is metamerism? “From a practical point of view in our department, it is two people seeing the same color differently,” explains Flaherty, Murphy Bros. Paint & Fine Finishing department head and reflective particle guru. “This might come as a shock to some, but men and women actually see color differently, let alone describe it differently."

Couple in kitchen preparing dinner:

Carla: “Honey can you grab the Fresno Canyon colored sauce pan?”

Stan: “You mean this black one?”


But that’s only half the problem. Color perception is also affected by different reflective surface coatings, glosses or flat, the amount, type and angle of light, natural, incandescent, cool or warm LED, time of day, as well as surrounding objects, like floors, ceilings, walls, furniture, and accessories, all affect how that color or shade is perceived regardless of gender.

“We see it all the time, which is why I’m glad we’re finally blogging about it,” says Dan Flaherty. “A couple comes in to look at cabinet doors or flooring and can’t come to agreement. The husband says there’s too much red, while the wife says, it’s too yellow,” recalls Flaherty. “Eventually they pick one sample to test at home. The husband looks at the sample in the morning light before he goes to work and the wife looks at it in the early evening light, after coming home from work. He says it’s too light and she says it’s too dark. Both are right and both are wrong. Light changes color. Reflectivity changes color. Your gender changes color,” concludes Flaherty.


ABOVE: what not to do—Paint a bunch of colors next to each other for maximum confusion. RIGHT: Sheen chart used by paint staff to help clients see how colors change with light reflection.


“Now that you know how subjective and changeable color is we suggest our clients reset their expectations on color and adjust their methods for evaluating it,” says Flaherty. One aid we’ve created is a “Metameristic Gradient Chart” for our designers to use with clients. It shows how the same color black can look very different depending on how you hold it, the light source you are under and the coating applied to the surface,” explains Flaherty.

“We really want clients to take samples home and live with the color for awhile. If you have multiple samples of the same surface look at them one at a time, not together.This goes for materials as well as paint.The last thing you want to do is throw up a dozen colors on a wall together and try to compare them."


According to Wikipedia, color vision is the ability of an organism or machine to distinguish objects based on the wavelengths (or frequencies) of the light they reflect, emit, or transmit. Colors can be measured and quantified in various ways; indeed, a person's perception of colors is a subjective process whereby the brain responds to the stimuli that are produced when incoming light reacts with the several types of cone cells in the eye. In essence, different people see the same illuminated object or light source in different ways.

"Across most of the visible spectrum males require a slightly longer wavelength than do females in order to experience the same hue," the research team concluded in a recent issue of the journal Biology of Sex Differences. The National Geographic news reports since longer wavelengths are associated with "warmer" colors, an orange, for example, may appear redder to a man than to a woman. Likewise, the grass is almost always greener to women than to men, to whom verdant objects appear a bit yellower.

Another study, led by Brooklyn College psychology professor Israel Abramov found that men are less adept at distinguishing among shades in the center of the color spectrum: blues, greens, and yellows. The team attributes this advantage to neuron development in the visual cortex, which is boosted by masculine hormones. Since males are flush with testosterone, in particular, they're born with 25 percent more neurons in this brain region than females, the study noted.


All said and done, picking colors, whether paint or stain, flooring or cabinets, countertops or tile, is a highly subjective, evolving, multi-faceted endeavor. Not to worry. As long as you know it’s not easy, and make full use of the experts at Murphy Bros. you’ll be just fine. However, if you find yourself thinking, “Heck. How hard can it be?” You are likely headed for the leading role in a cautionary tale.



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