So, there’s this story that in the 1950’s and 60’s, surgeons and doctors were complaining of headaches and eye strain after long moments in the operating room. Apparently they kept seeing blue-green spots after spending several hours at surgery. At the time, doctors and surgeons wore bright whites to convey ‘cleanliness’ yet those bright whites and bright lights in the surgery room caused problems.
So someone pretty smart decided that in order to alleviate the eye fatigue, the visual complement to blood, blue-green, should be worn by all in the operating room. No more headaches and thus, the story of why scrubs are blue-green was born.
What these professionals were experiencing in the operating room is what we call “successive contrast” or the “after-image.” When we stare at particular color for a long period of time, the cones in our retinas fatigue. For example, if we gaze at the color red for an extended period of time, then the red-sensitive photo-receptors in our eyes become fatigued. When we shift our eyes to a white surface, the red stimulus is replaced by white and the cones start to ‘rejuvenate.’ But while they are adjusting, those photo-receptors that are only sensitive to blue-green (red’s visual complement) will function. Thus, you’ll see a blue-green image for a bit after.
Try it yourself with the image above
Click on the image and stare at the black dot in the middle of the red circle for 30 seconds. Then shift your eyes to the black dot in the middle of the white circle. You’ll start to see the after-image, a light blue-green, appear and then fade soon after.
Why and How is This Important?
Red and blue-green are “perceptual opposites, not paint mixing opposites” as noted by Albert Munsell, creator of the Munsell Color System. What we visually see as the complement to red is blue-green, not green. Green is seen as the complement on artist color wheels and works great for mixing paint, not people. :) Although I’ve talked about Itten’s Color Wheel in the past, it is not complete when thinking about the context of personal color analysis. (Although he was spot-on in identifying human personality characteristics with a person’s coloring and tastes.)
Complements, when paired together, stimulate and enhance each other. When they are mixed together, they unite into the perfect neutral gray. When you wear your visual complement to your hair, skin or eyes, you are enhancing your coloring in a dynamic way. Here’s a brief overview of the complements in Munsell’s color wheel with Munsell’s unique color names in parentheses:
- Red and Blue-Green
- Yellow and Blue-Violet (Purple-Blue)
- Green and Red-Violet (Red-Purple)
- Blue and Orange (Yellow-Red)
- Violet (Purple) and Yellow-Green (Green-Yellow)