We, as individuals, are seldomly aware of the fact that we have difficulties in seeing the world around us neutrally. We are loaded with concepts and ideas that when looked upon more closely are feeble at most. We have brains which are interpreting all the loose titbits registered by our senses into a (seemingly) coherent “picture”. I have referred to the illusion of understanding a couple of times here at RPD. We go to great length to convince ourselves that we are indeed a continuous “I”, which basically is an other illusion.

At the same time “the others” are colouring what they are showing to you: unconsciously as a side effect of the process to understand the world themselves, sometimes consciously to influence the way we want others to see the world or ourselves.

I was made aware of the “varnish” you have to look through quite literally when visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It has been closed for renovation for years on end. Last year finally it reopened. For those who are not familiar with the museum: it is where Rembrandt’s world famous “de Nachtwacht” is on display.

Old paintings tend to get darker, losing their bright colours by ageing of the varnish. If a painting gets restored and the varnish renewed the paintings often comes out very bright, so much that they almost seem fake. Wandering through the rooms with paintings and other art objects I became aware that not only the paintings but all other objects had a very yellowish tint over them as well.

Having my camera with me, and my neutral gray card – cut to an iso sized bank card as to fit in my wallet nicely – to calibrate my camera white balance I found that al the objects are lit by artificial light with a very heavy yellow colour cast. Now our brains are compensating for colour cast as much as they can but still it was very apparent (see for explanation update below) . With old paintings this only works half I guess for the concept of “old paintings are yellowish” hits in.

I realised this when looking at the painting you see above. Looking at it with my bare eyes, it had rather dull yellowish colours. Then I noticed the overhanging artificial lights and pulled out my grey card, calibrated my white balance and snapped the above picture… Bingo all colours came to life! Skin-tones, the vibrant reds and blues, the 3d effect of the painting… Maybe I accidentally removed a bit of the colour cast of the varnish on the painting as it has the same rough color as the lights? Who knows?

What I did know is that I got the same results all over the museum. Especially artefacts on display without any natural light coming in to the room were very badly hit. It also obscured the visibility of details. I was totally amazed of what I could have seen but didn’t when looking at my pics at home. It just underlines the horrible effect these lights have on how you as a visitor can appreciate the artefacts on display.

It has been a very expensive and lengthy renovation but the lights used are a disgrace to the Rijksmuseum and the splendour of the artefacts on display.

For me this was just a reminder of the difficulty to see the world as it is…

Update 21 March 2014 via linkedin:

Really hope for Obama the Rijksmuseum changes the horrible yellowish spot lighting today, for it obscures the detail and beauty of the paintings/artefacts big time.

Update 8 March 2014:

On our ability to adapt to different colors of light sources:

Color is a psychological response to a physical stimulus provided by three different types of cones (RGB). We can measure the physics (spectral response) of various colors but our perception and the names we assign to these colors will always remain subjective. Our visual systems can adapt to the spectral colors in the light source as well as the spectral response of the object’s color. This is possible because the cones in our central vision area are covered by a yellow filter called the macula. Elsewhere in the retina (peripheral vision) they are not. This additional information allows our brains to adapt our perception of colors to various light sources. In digital or photographic imaging we call this white balance.

via Cameras vs Human Vision.