Visualizing colormap artifacts

In Evaluate and compare colormaps, I have shown how to extract and display the lightness profile of a colormap using Python. I do this routinely with colormaps, but I realize it takes an effort, and not all users may feel comfortable using code to test whether a colormap is perceptual or not.

This got me thinking that there is perhaps a need for a user-friendly, interactive tool to help identify colormap artifacts, and wondering how it would look like.

In a previous post, Comparing color palettes, I plotted the elevation for the South American continent from the Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project using four different color palettes. In Figure 1 below I plot again 3 of those: rainbow, linear lightness rainbow, and grayscale, respectively, from left to right. In maps like these some artifacts are very evident. For example there’s a classic film negative effect in the map on the left, where the Guiana Highlands and the Brazilian Highlands, both in blue, seem to stand lower than the Amazon basin, in violet. This is due to the much lower lightness (or alternatively intensity) of the colour blue compared to the violet.


Figure 1


However, other artifacts are more subtle, like the inversion of the highest peaks in the Andes, which are coloured in red, relative to their surroundings, in particular the Altipiano, an endorheic basin that includes Lake Titicaca.

My idea for this tool is simple, and consists of two windows. The first is a basemap window which can display either a demo dataset or user data loaded from an ASCII grid file. In this window the user would interactively select a profile by building a polyline with point-and-click, like the one in Figure 2 in white.


Figure 2

The second window would show the elevation profile with the colour fill assigned based on the colormap, like in Figure 3 at the bottom (with colormap to the right), and with a profile of the corresponding colour intensities (on a scale 1-255) at the top.

In this view it is immediately evident that, for example, the two highest peaks near the center, coloured in red, are relative intensity lows. Another anomaly is the absolute intensity low on the right side, corresponding to the colour blue, where the elevation profile varies smoothly.

Figure 3

Figure 3

I created this concept prototype using a combination of Matlab, Python, and Surfer. I welcome suggestions for possible additional features, and would like to hear form folks interested in collaboration on a web app (ideally in Python).

Perceptual rainbow palette – the goodies

Perceptual rainbow palette – Matlab function and ASCII files

In my last post I introduced cubeYF, my custom-made perceptual lightness rainbow palette. As promised there, I am sharing the palette  with today’s post. For the Matlab users, cube YF, along with the other palettes I introduced in the series, is part of the Matlab File Exchange submission Perceptually improved colormaps.

For the non-Matlab users, please download the cubeYF here (RGB, 256 samples). You may also be interested in cube1, which has a slightly superior visual hue contrast, due to the addition of a red-like color at the high lightness end but at the cost of a modest deviation from 100% perceptual. I used cube 1 in my Visualization tips for geoscientists series.

Perceptual rainbow palette – preformatted in various software formats

The palettes are also formatted for a number of platforms and software products: Geosoft, Hampson-Russell, SMT Kingdom, Landmark Decision Space Geoscience, Madagascar, OpendTect, Python/Matplotlib, Schlumberger Petrel, Seisware, Golden Software Surfer, Paradigm Voxelgeo. Please download them from my Color Palettes page and follow instructions therein.

Another example

In Comparing color palettes I used a map of South America [1] to compare a linear lightness palette to some common rainbow palettes using  grayscale as a perceptual benchmark. Below, I am doing the same for the cubeYF colormap.


Comparison of South America maps using, from left to right: ROYGBIV (from this post) , classic rainbow, cubeYF, and grayscale

Again, there is little doubt in my mind that cubeYF does a superior job compared to the other two rainbow palettes as it is free of artefacts [2] and more similar to grayscale  (with the additional benefit of color).

The ROYGBIV and cubeYF map have been included in Marek Kultys’ excellent tutorial Visual Alpha-Beta-Gamma: Rudiments of Visual Design for Data Explorers, recently published  on Parsons Journal for information mapping, Volume V, Issue 1.

An online palette testing tool

Both cubeYF and cube1 feature in the colormap evaluation tool by the Data Analysis and Assessment Center at the Engineer Research and Development Center. If you want to quickly evaluate a number of palettes, this is the right tool. The tool has a collection of many palettes, organized by categories, which can be used on 5 different test image, and examined in terms of RGB components and human perception. Below here is an example using cube YF.


An idea for a palette’s mood test

A few weeks ago, thanks to Matt Hall (@kwinkunks on twitter),  I discovered Colour monitor, a great online tool by Richard Weeler (@Zephyris on twitter). You supply an image; Colour monitor analyses its colors in terms of hue, saturation and luminance and produces a graphical representation of the image’s mood [3]. I thought, what a wonderful idea!

Then I wondered: what if I used this to tell me something about a color palette’s mood? The circular histogram of colors reminded me of the Harmonic templates [4] on the hue wheel from this paper And so I created fat colorbars using the three  palettes I used in the last post, saved them as images, and run the monitor with them. Here below are the results for Matlab jet, Industry Spectrum, and cubeYF. Looking at these palettes in terms of harmony I would say that jet is not very harmonic (too large a portion of the hue circle; the T template, which is the largest, spans 180 degrees), and that the spectrum is terrible.

CubeYF is also exceeding a bit 180 degrees, but looks very close to a T template rotated by 180 degrees (rotations are allowed). So perhaps I could trim it a bit? But to me it looks a lot nicer and gives me a vibe of really good mood, and reminds me of one of those beautiful central american headdresses, like Moctezuma’s crown.


Jet mood


Spectrum mood


cubeYF mood


[1] Created with data from the Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project at the National Geophysical Data Center.

[2] Looking at the intensity of the colorbars may help in the assessment: the third and fourth colorbars are very similar and both look perceptually linear, whereas the first and second do not.

[3] Quoted from Richard’s blog post: “… in the middle is a circular histogram of the colours (spectral shades) in the image, and gives an idea of how much of each colour there is. Up the left is a histogram of image brightness (lightness of colour), and up the right is a histogram of colour saturation (vibrancy)”.

[4] Quoted from the paper’s abstract: “Harmonic colors are sets of colors that are aesthetically pleasing in terms of human visual perception. If you are interested in this idea there is a set of slides and a video on the author’s website

Related posts

Perceptual rainbow palette – the method

With this post I would like to introduce my new, perceptually balanced rainbow color palette. I used the palette for the first time in How to assess a colourmap, an essay I wrote for 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics, edited by Matt Hall and Evan Bianco of Agile Geoscience.

In my essay I started with the analysis of the spectrum color palette, the default  in some seismic interpretation softwares, using my Lightness L* profile plot and Great Pyramid of Giza test surface (see this post for background on the tests and to download the Matlab code). The profile and the pyramid are shown in the top left image and top right image in Figure 1, from the essay.

spectrum vs cubeYF

Figure 1

In the plot the value of L* varies with the color of each sample in the spectrum, and the line is colored accordingly. This erratic profile highlights several issues with spectrum: firstly, the change in lightness is not monotonic. For example it increases from black (L*=0) to magenta [M] then drops from magenta to blue [B], then increases again and so on. This is troublesome if spectrum is used to map elevation because it will interfere with the correct perception of relief, particularly if shading is added. Additionally, the curve gradient changes many times, indicating a nonuniform perceptual distance between samples. There are also plateaus of nearly flat L*, creating bands of constant color (a small one at the blue, and a large one at the green [G]).

The Great Pyramid has monotonically increasing elevation (in feet – easier to code) so there should be no discontinuities in the surface if the color palette is perceptual. However, clearly using the spectrum we have introduced many artificial discontinuities that are not present in the data. For the bottom row in FIgure 1 I used my new color palette, which has a nice, monotonic, compressive Lightness profile (bottom left). Using this palette the pyramid surface (bottom right) is smoothly colored, without any perceptual artifact.

This is how I created the palette: I started with RGB triplets for magenta, blue, cyan, green, and yellow (no red), which I converted to L*a*b* triplets using Colorspace transformations, a Matlab function available on the Matlab File Exchange. I modified the new L* values by fitting them to an approximately cube law L* function (this is consistent with Stevens’ power law of perception), and adjusted a* and b* values using Lab charts like the one in Figure 2 (from CIELab Color Space by Gernot Hoffmann, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Emden)  to get 5 colors moving up the L* axis along an imaginary spiral (I actually used tracing paper). Then I interpolated to 256 samples using the same ~cube law, and finally reconverted to RGB [1].


Figure 2

There was quite a bit of trial and error involved, but I am very happy with the results. In the animations below I compare the spectrum and the new palette, which I call cubeYF, as seen in CIELab color space. I generated these animations with the method described in this post, using the 3D color inspector plugin in ImageJ:

I also added Matlab’s default Jet rainbow – a reminder that defaults may be a necessity, but in many instances not the ideal choice:

OK, the new palette looks promising, insofar as modelling is concerned. But how would it fare using some real data? To answer this question I used a residual gravity map from my unpublished thesis in Geology at the University of Rome. I introduced this map and discussed the geological context and objectives of the geophysical study in a previous post, so please refer to that if you are curious about it. In this post I will go straight to the comparison of the color palettes; if you are unfamiliar with gravity data, try to imagine negative residuals as elevation below sea level, and positive residuals as elevation above seal level – you won’t miss out on anything.

In Figures 3 to 6 I colored the data using the above three color palettes, and grayscale as benchmark. I generated these figures using Matlab code I shared in my post Visualization tips for geoscientists: Matlab, and I presented three of them (grayscale, Spectrum, and cubeYF) at the 2012 convention of the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists in Calgary (the extended abstract, which I co-authored with Steve Lynch of 3rd Science, is available here).

In Figure 3, the benchmark for the following figures, I use grayscale to represent the data, assigning increasing intensity from most negative gravity residuals in black to most positive residuals in white (as labeled next to the colorbar). Then, I used terrain slope to create shading: the higher the slope, the darker the shading that is assigned, which results in a pseudo-3D display that is very effective (please refer to Visualization tips for geoscientists: Surfer, for an explanation of the method, and Visualization tips for geoscientists: Matlab for code).

Figure 3 - Grayscale benchmark

Figure 3 – Grayscale benchmark

In Figure 4 I color the pseudo-3D surface with the cubeYF rainbow. Using this color palette instead of grayscale allows viewers to appreciate smaller changes, more quickly assess differences, or conversely identify areas of similar anomaly, while at the same time preserving the peudo-3D effect. Now compare Figure 4 with Figure 5, where we use the spectrum to color the surface: this palette introduces several artefacts (sharp edges and bands of constant hue) which confuse the display and interfere with the perception of pseudo-relief, all but eliminating the effect.  For Figure 6 I used Matlab’s default Jet color palette, which is better that the spectrum, and yet the relief effect is somewhat lost (due mainly to a sharp yellow edge and cyan band).

campi cube YF

Figure 4 – cube YF rainbow

campi spectrum

Figure 5 – Industry spectrum

campi jet

Figure 6 – Matlab Jet

It looks like both spectrum and jet are poor choices when used for color representation of a surface, with the new color palette a far superior alternative. In the CSEG convention paper mentioned above (available here) Steve and I went further by showing that the spectrum not only has these perceptual artifacts and edges, but it is also very confusing for viewers with deficient color vision, a condition that occurs in about 8% of Caucasian males. We did that using computer software [2] to simulate how viewers with two types of deficient color vision, Deuteranopia and Tritanopia, would see the two colored surfaces, and we compare the results. In other words, we are now able to see the images as they would see them. Please refer to the paper for a full discussion on these simulation.

In here, I show in Figures  7 to 9 the Deuteranope simulations for cubeYF, spectrum, and jet, respectively. In all three simulations the hue discrimination has decreased, but while the spectrum and jet are now even more confusing, the cubeYF has preserved the relief effect.

Deuteranope Simulation of campi cube YF

Deuteranope Simulation of cube YF

Deuteranope Simulation of campi spectrum

Deuteranope Simulation of Industry spectrum

Deuteranope Simulation of campi jet

Deuteranope Simulation of Matlab Jet

That’s it for today. In my next post, to be published very shortly, you will get the palette, and a lot more.


A more perceptual color palette for structure maps, CSEG/CSPG 2012 convention, Calgary

How to assess a colourmap, in 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics


[1] An alternative to the method I used would be to start directly in CIELab color space, and use a some kind of spiral *L lightness profile programmatically.  For example:

– Using 3D helical curves from:

– Using Archimedes spiral

– Expanding on code by Steve Eddins at Mathworks (A path through L*a*b* color space) in this article , one could create a spiral cube lightness with something like:

%% this creates best-fit pure power law function 
%  Inspired by wikipedia -

%% this makes cielab real cube function spiral 
radius = 50; 
theta = linspace(0.6*pi, 2*pi, 256).'; 
a = radius * sin(theta); b = radius * cos(theta); 
Lab1 = [L2, a, b]; RGB_realcube=colorspace('RGB<-Lab',(Lab1));

[2] The simulations are created using ImageJ, an open source image manipulation program, and the Vischeck plug-in. I later discovered Dichromacy, anther ImageJ plug-in for these simulations, which has the advantage of being an open source plugin. They can also be performed on the fly (no upload needed) using the online tool Color Oracle.

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