The Problem of Digital Vs. Analogue Color

Recently, I was a having a conversation with a fountain pen user about a new ink company called Tekker.  They are a custom ink company that creates fountain pen inks based off of hex codes.  The individual in question is not an artist and was trying to duplicate the color of the original Crayola orange crayon. It struck me how difficult a challenge this must present to someone outside of the art world.  So I thought for my first post I'd dive into the challenges of moving between digital and analogue color.

So first off: what is a hex code?  Hex codes are a digital encoding system that tells the computer the color information.  It was designed to translate between the different color languages used namely: RGB,HSL,HSV and CMYK..  I'm not going to go into the different types of color systems in this post because that's a whole other rabbit hole.  For our purposes today, let's just say we have these four languages and hex codes serve as something of a translator.  Hex codes create a simple css code that enables the color to show up on your screen.  

Because hex codes are digital, they use a theory of color known as additive color theory.  What this means is that color is added to your screen using light.  That's why when you work in photoshop, for example, and do color fill multiple times the image gets brighter.  That's because each time you do a fill more light is being poured in.  Technology has improved a great deal in recent years and most programs do a good job of attempting to auto-correct the light being added in, but nothing is perfect.

A representation of what happens on your computer's screen as more colors are added.


Analogue pigments use a process known as subtractive color theory, which is basically the opposite of additive.  The more color you add in, the darker it becomes.  

A representation of what happens in the physical world when colors are mixed together.

So you're probably asking yourself what does this have to do with getting a custom ink color mixed?  The answer is everything!

Let's take a look at a test case.  Since I'm not going to wait to have a color mixed and sent to me, I'm going to work with a color I already have for our purposes here.  But I'll go through the steps that you would use.  Most people are going to be looking for a color to match an object in the physical world--such as a fountain pen.  So the first step is to take a photograph of the object. I will be working with a photo of an ink swatch from Vanness Pens.

There are a lot of apps out there that you can use to find your hex codes or programs such as photoshop will also do it for you.  For our purposes I will be using an app called Color Viewfinder, since my guess is most of you will be doing it on a phone app of some sort.  You can find apps simply by searching for "hex finder" in your app store. 

So here is my starting photo:

Image courtesy of Vanness Pens.

Once I have my photo, I load it into my app and it spits out an image that looks like this:

Hex code generator image

Now you'll notice that there are several colors that have popped up here.  You might be thinking to yourself "well, that's because of the paper showing through the swab."  So lets look at something completely different--a piece of fabric--and see what we get.


A photo of an object on my desk and the corresponding codes.

Now that we can see that any photo will yield multiple results, lets get back to my ink.  My next step is to pick which hex code I think is the closest.  To get a better idea I'm going to head on over to a website called Color Hex Codes.  This is a site that enables you to enter your codes and see what they look like and get more info about them.  I picked the middle purple to start with.

Here we see what the color looks like and the translations into other color languages.

Here we see what the color looks like and the translations into other color languages.

If I was doing this to truly order an ink color, I'd check all three colors and match them against my object...but for the sake of brevity, let's stick with this color choice.

The fact that I have to make a choice based off of a comparison brings me to the brunt of the problem.  We've gone from physical object (subtractive color theory) to digital photo on my phone (additive) to uploaded photo on my computer screen which does not share the same calibration as my phone and are now comparing this example to a physical object (subtractive). 

The best analogy I can use here is that of language; it would be like translating English to Mandarin Chinese, and then Mandarin to Yu (still Chinese but a different dialect) and then re-translating it to English.  There would surely be something lost in translation there!

So now I've decided on a formula, that uses additive theory, and I send off my hex code and await my ink. The manufactures are going to be faced with the exact same quandary as we just were, they have to translate the digital to the analogue.  A lot of things can influence the translation process, including qualities of the ink and the color sense of the person mixing.  While most places calibrate to try to make allowances for the differences between additive and subtractive color theory at the end of the day we're still left with human observation to create the programs to calibrate the translation.  And as you have probably experienced, no two people see exactly the same.

But for the sake of my experiment, I'm going to now pretend I've gotten my ink back and are ready to take it for a test run. 

The Ink In Reality: TWSBI Eco Broad, Tomoe River Paper, no flash.

So my starting hex code options were: #85738D, #65506F, #4E3E55--none of which showed up in my photo of the ink in real life.  The closest I got is the darkest color on here.  Let's take a look at my starting and finishing hex codes together:

The upper code is the code I started with based off my best guess of what the color looks like.  The lower code is what actually read out from my writing sample.

In all honesty, neither really seems right to my eye comparing them to the handwriting example I have.  And therein lies the whole problem of translating analogue to digital in color.

Knowing all this, would I order a custom color?  The answer is of course!  But I would do so knowing that while it won't be an exact replica and as such I wouldn't be disappointed or frustrated with the manufacturer when my ink looked slightly different on the page than my object.  After all, surprises are part of what keeps life colorful, if you'll pardon my pun.