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Exploring Color Formulation: What Makes a Perfect Match?


By Jason Loehr, Global Product Manager, Datacolor

Raw materials shortages continue to impact the paint and coatings industry with no signs of slowing down. From unforeseen disruptions and price increases to transportation delays and extended lead times, the unfortunate reality is that the supply chain challenges of 2020-22 continue to impact the industry with no clear end in sight.

Architectural paint and coatings manufacturers are reevaluating their processes and priorities to adapt. This is especially prominent during the color formulation process, where costs and material availability have an increasing influence on the color formulas making it to market.

In today’s uncertain world, what defines a good color match? We can begin our search for the answer by exploring the current state of the market.

Raw Material Shortages & Supply Chain Challenges

Demand within the paint industry grew significantly during the pandemic. This was fueled in part by a rush of people relocating from crowded cities to more spacious suburbs, spurring the need for new home construction. On top of that, lockdowns prompted consumer desire for DIY home improvement projects and a high priority was placed on fresh coats of paint. The sharp rise in demand coupled with destabilized supply chains, global conflict, extreme weather events and worker scarcity created a perfect storm for a shortage of the raw materials needed to keep the industry running smoothly.

The resulting challenges have put tremendous pressure on paint manufacturers. As the availability of colorants and additives ebbs and flows, companies are faced with the daunting task of reformulating recipes multiple times to keep customers happy — all while still attempting to keep prices in check, maintain requisite performance properties and ensure timely delivery. Color reformulation can waste valuable time and resources, especially when reformulations are needed to the base paint. This triggers a cascade of additional reformulations for every color recipe and product using that base. One reformulation can multiply into thousands.

This scenario is in direct contrast with the industry’s color development goals, which center on quickly getting color right to avoid costly errors and delays. As persistent concerns over raw material costs are compounded by inflationary price hikes, it is more important than ever for manufacturers to clearly identify what “the perfect color match” means to them to maintain agility and efficiency.

Defining the Perfect Color Match

With so many factors at play, how does the industry define the “perfect match?”

If we answered this question from a purely scientific perspective, the “perfect color match” in the paint industry would be the one with the lowest Delta-E value (dE) — a mathematical measurement of the “distance” between two colors that range from zero to 100. Achieving a dE of zero is often not financially or logistically feasible, so companies set color tolerance ranges. Although there is no industry-standard dE value, most industrial architectural paint manufacturers establish a tolerance of less than dE 1.0. This is recognized as the threshold at which the average human eye cannot detect color variance between objects.

Courtesy of Datacolor

In today’s uncertain world, what defines a good color match? We can begin our search for the answer by exploring the current state of the market.

However, because there are many color recipes that can fall within a target tolerance, paint and coatings manufacturers have long determined the “perfect color match” by weighing target dE values against a combination of influencing factors. This includes the availability of raw materials, cost and retention of desired performance properties, such as fade resistance, metamerism mitigation and degree of hiding.

In today’s volatile market, raw material availability and cost are increasingly the primary influencing factors in this decision-making process. The exception to this is in the case of companies whose need for coating performance overrides cost concerns and therefore a comparatively higher dE value might be acceptable.

Take, for example, metamerism, a phenomenon where two colors appear to match under one lighting condition, but not under a different light source. This visual variability can be controlled at the point of formulation. However, raw colorant or additive alterations as a result of material shortages can affect a manufacturer’s ability to achieve the desired effect and are thus influencing manufacturers’ color formulation decisions.

Another example of favoring paint properties over color accuracy is when industrial customers are willing to accept a slightly imperfect color match or slightly higher prices if it means the paint will have better hiding qualities. Companies frequently lend more weight to a paint’s hiding ability than color precision when determining their “perfect match” so they can save time, money and labor by applying one coat of paint rather than several.

Ultimately, the “perfect match” is one that is within a set tolerance and can be reproduced at a reasonable cost based on the raw materials available.

Digital Color Management Solutions

Now that we understand what goes into determining a good color match, the question becomes: How do we quickly find a match while addressing dE, metamerism, hiding, cost, fade resistance, colorant shortages and a myriad of other factors? This is where digital color management tools and software come into play.

Modern digital color management solutions with correction tools enable manufacturers to analyze approved color formulations and, if necessary, achieve accurate reformulation on the first try by reducing the likelihood of mistinted colors, resulting in less waste during the production process. One feature of color matching and formulation software is gamut mapping, which solves common colorant challenges by speeding up the color formulation process.

Gamut mapping within color formulation software is helpful for manufacturers facing challenges due to a limited or ever-changing colorant selection. For instance, if a manufacturer does not have the appropriate raw materials on hand to make a specific color, the software will identify color gamut limitations and enable alternative options, saving time and money that would otherwise be wasted on trying to achieve a color that is not possible with the materials available.

Take, for example, titanium dioxide (TiO2). This white powder is commonly used in industrial paints and coatings, and it is coveted for its hiding power, brightness and versatility. Prices for this material are expected to rise with growing demand, and sourcing has been a challenge because of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. To maintain access to TiO2 impacted manufacturers must consider switching suppliers. Such a change could affect consistency across batches, leading to potentially costly and time-consuming color reformulations.

When reformulating a recipe for any reason, it is helpful to have software that allows you to filter, sort and weigh the importance of certain qualities you want to retain such as metamerism and hiding, or factors like cost and the ability to reach a specific dE. If it is not possible to substitute a colorant, formulation software can create new formulas based on readily available materials, saving time, money and frustration.

Color management software also enables the production of smaller batches, enhancing output and providing workers more time to focus on a higher level of problems. If off-color materials or mistints should occur during the color development process, color matching software can “recycle” the off-color product into new production batches by simply adding the proper colorants to achieve the desired shade.


Ultimately, final products are most efficiently brought to market by implementing color management software that will optimize production, alleviate some challenges and help keep costs lower by reducing time spent navigating color-related speedbumps.

In today’s paint and coatings market, the definition of the “perfect color match” continues to prioritize formulations within specified dE tolerances, but increasing consideration is being paid to material availability and cost in making final decisions. Digital color solutions make it possible to achieve company goals while providing the consistency and quality that consumers expect.


Jason Loehr, Global Product Manager, Datacolor

For over 25 years, Loehr has been a part of the Datacolor team—a global leader in color management solutions that provides software, instruments, and services to assure the accurate color of materials, products and images. As a Product Manager, Loehr is responsible for planning and execution of product lifecycles while prioritizing customer requirements, defining product vision and delivering software that solves customer problems within the paint and coating industry.

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Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Asia Pacific; Coatings manufacturers; Coatings raw materials manufacturers; Color; Color matching; Digital tools; Economy; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Raw materials; Z-Continents

Comment from Kate Laurence, (1/13/2023, 7:56 AM)

Great blog! Ultimately, the “perfect match” is one that is within a set tolerance and can be reproduced at a reasonable cost based on the raw materials available.

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