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What colour is this piece of fruit? It’s not a trick question

Differences of opinion over the colour of the fruit in this painting highlight just how complicated colour perception is

LONDON– What colour is this piece of fruit? The answer, according to colour scientist Anya Hurlbert, depends greatly on the lighting conditions under which the painting, Gaugin’s Bowl of Fruit and Tankard before a Window, is viewed.

Imperceptible changes in wavelength can bring about markedly different responses from observers.

Speaking at LuxLive today about her research at the National Gallery, Hurlbert revealed that when viewing the painting under neutral light, 78 per cent of the 9,000 participants, given four choices of colour, responded yellow. But later, with the wavelength shifted slightly towards red, 81 per cent said orange, even though the visible change in colour was only slight. The rest of the fruit was less ‘sensitive’ to the change, appearing more or less the same hue.

In another part of the research, Hurlbert’s team from Newcastle University asked respondents which lighting conditions they preferred when viewing the painting. By synchronising wireless clickers and the tuneable LED lighting system with a computer, participants could register their preferred conditions as the lighting shifted between simulated candlelight, daylight, tungsten and cool fluorescent.

You may not be surprised to hear that there was a strong preference for daylight, specifically the sort of northern European daylight under which Gaugin painted, with a colour temperature of about 6700K.

So daylight, or a simulation of it, is best for viewing the works of the old masters? Not so fast. Though that could mean people prefer to view fine art under daylight, it could also mean that people prefer to view paintings under light conditions similar to those in which the artist worked – seeing through the artist’s eyes, as it were.

And the matter is muddied further by the fact that respondents aged between 16 and 25 registered a slight preference for cool fluorescence – something to mull if you’re planning for the future.

Ultimately, Hurlbert concluded, there may be no one wavelength that works best. By installing a system that simulates lighting throughout the day, galleries can offer visitors a dynamic experience, which may prove the most pleasing option of all.

We’ll know more when the full results of the research are published in 2015. Watch this space.