Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

A Palette for Screens

In General GUI on December 1, 1996 at 11:18 am

Originally published in Mishkafayim, The Israel Museum Art Quarterly
Issue #28, Dec 1996, pg. 70-73

artist2What’s the difference between an artist-painter and a wall-painter? The difference is clearly illustrated in so many cartoons, old and new (see right):

1 An artist-painter wears a beret and often a beard, while the handyman is clean-shaved and wears a cap.

2 The wall painter holds a brush and a can of paint; while the painter, who admittedly is gripping a brush as well, however holds in his other hand a rounded wooden plate. The painter always turns this plate into a colorful mess, so typical (as the myth goes) to those bearded, beret-wearing types.

The palette is vital to the artist’s work. It, and not the brush, is the magic tool in the service of the art of painting. Using the palette is what enables one to use the very same and simple painter’s brush to create unlimited number of hues from a limited, finite number of basic colors.

Is the number of possible colors really unlimited? Not really. Even if the options are theoretically unlimited, their deployment is limited to the actual space on the real surface on the artist’s wooden plate. A painter can create dozens of different hues, but at some point he, or she, will run out of space on the palette. What then? Sometimes, using thin, fine brush strokes painted very near to each other, the painter creates with those two hues an apparent third one. To actually detect the trick, and to discern reality from make-believe, one needs to get physically closer to reality, and practically stick one’s nose into the work.

No such discrete hues exist in real life, of course.: when a painter closely examines a rose, he or she will find no brush strokes. In our eyes, hues of pink and red on the petals will always seem to be uniformly blended, continuous gradations of color. The painter knows very well there are more hues in the rose than his eyes can see, but she is persistent in trying to depict this richness for eternity with his limited number of colors, a palette and a brush. Seeing the palette as a powerful translation tool, translating between differently constrained color systems, is a clue as to why this concept (unlike the beret and the beard) survived and stayed with us to be incorporated into 1990’s technology – as did the headache one can get when one gazes at a rose through a magnifying glass for too long.

Ah, how those old and golden days of the beard and the palette transformed into our modern times ruled by mouse and computer! But stare into the computer screen real close, and you’ll see the palette is still with us, with the complimentary headache. As was then, is now again: we are being deceived, and the apparent limitless  richness of color bestowed upon us is very limited indeed.

Remember monochrome monitors? Once, computers used to present only black and white – in fact, black and green at first – a quite limited selection that never made for intensely interesting color compositions. Those monitors never displayed interesting paintings and photos anyway, but were limited to displaying letters and digits only (and then those too rarely combined to intensely interesting texts, either). In the last couple of decades, however, monitor displays were greatly improved, and a contemporary PC display can show some 16 million hues – in fact, 16,777,216 of them. There technology stopped, and not because it couldn’t come up with a wider selection. Rather, it was market demand that stopped at the 16 million mark – as no one will be able to appreciate the effort: the human eye can discern less than 16 million distinct hues, and if we’ll show it 17 million, it couldn’t care less. Wait – even those humans that can see the 16 million colors, need a little more than a cheap CRT display. They need a good graphic display card, storage to store those large, color-rich files, good connectivity so they can show them to someone else, operating systems to support all that… and that’s why most current programs would rather stay in the 256-color range.

The value “256” merits some discussion. You may already be familiar with its little sibling, the 128, or its big brother, the Kilobyte (or 1024). The popularity of this family merits an explanation regarding the representational capability of computer bits. A bit is the smallest memory unit in a computer; But even a single small bit can represent something: in fact, a couple of them. For example: light and dark. When the bit is electrically charged, it can mean “light”; and when it’s not, it’s “dark”. Now, if we had 2 bits, we could represent 4 states, or colors: both on, both off, one off and the other off and vice versa. Give me 3 bits, though, and I can represent 8 states! Each bit we add to the representational group doubles the range of our the palette of states – or colors. Using 8 bits, we can represent 256 colors, and so on (if we’re lucky and programmers don’t need some bits for other tasks – and I’m not kidding).

As mentioned earlier, a contemporary home computer screens can display over 16 million colors. suppose each one of those has a number – say number 12,056,839 is some shocking pink. We’ll need 8 digits to write down that number (using our common base-ten numeric system). On the other hand, if we’ll represent the color with a 256-color palette, we’ll find it’s almost like the color #204; now we only need 3 digits to remember the color ID. That will cut our memory needs to about a third – a significant memory saving! And technologically, it also means that if we’ll paint a computer screen in shocking pink, it will be executed 3 times faster, while the memory we consume is 3 times less.

Using the palette is faster and more economical. But is it worth the inevitable loss of exactness? That depends on the degree of distortion the slightly incorrect values will introduce into our process, or in other words, how useful for us are the colors in the limited palette we get. If our limited palette includes colors that are popular in the specific chunk of reality we wish to represent, then we’ve just made a very good deal.

A pink rose or a blue thorn? Or: what colors would you indeed select to be in a limited palette? Ask the painter, holding a real palette in his hand while painting a rose, and he’ll probably prefer all the palette colors to be pinkish. That will be a terrible mistake, typical to the bearded and beret-clad. In the intensity of creation, they tend to forget that in a minute, they’ll feel like painting a blue thorn, and what then? Will they wait for the pink palette to dry? Will they buy a new palette for each painting? We’re facing a similar dilemma In our digital domain: if our palette fits the pink painting, we will not be able to show another painting on the monitor on that moment, unless its hues are pink too.

But if we’ll collectively decide what colors best fit our collective subjects, we’ll get not just a considerable memory saving but we’ll be able to display several pictures on the same screen. This international consensus has its price: some more color incorrectness. If we can’t find the color in the agreed-upon palette, then we need to resort to tricks: for example, if we can’t find pink in the palette, we use alternate red and white dots.

Software developers have often readily put their energy into developing such tricks, since these can widen their audience reach. The Internet is another factor that prolongs the life of the limited palette, even as the better current technology already enables us a much higher color level. First, the limited palette enables the creation of smaller, quicker-loading files, critical to good online performance; Secondly, on the net you never know what monitor your work will be displayed on, and you’ll better stick to the basics. Compatibility and broad reach are Good on the net.

Naturally, there are other compression methods which eventually may prove better and more popular than the limited palette. There’s a cruel method called JPEG,  which actually compresses images while losing parts of them (it looks better than it sounds), and there are the fractal-based methods, taking advantage of the composition adherence to mystical esthetic-mathematical principles inherent in nature (likewise). But as we speak, the palette still has a place of honor right besides the brush – and the mouse.

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