4 posts on Color

On compliance vs readability: Generating text colors with CSS

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Can we emulate the upcoming CSS contrast-color() function via CSS features that have already widely shipped? And if so, what are the tradeoffs involved and how to best balance them?

Relative Colors

Out of all the CSS features I have designed, Relative Colors aka Relative Color Syntax (RCS) is definitely among the ones I’m most proud of. In a nutshell, they allow CSS authors to derive a new color from an existing color value by doing arbitrary math on color components in any supported color space:

--color-lighter: hsl(from var(--color) h s calc(l * 1.2));
--color-lighterer: oklch(from var(--color) calc(l + 0.2) c h);
--color-alpha-50: oklab(from var(--color) l a b / 50%);

The elevator pitch was that by allowing lower level operations they provide authors flexibility on how to derive color variations, giving us more time to figure out what the appropriate higher level primitives should be.

As of May 2024, RCS has shipped in every browser except Firefox. but given that it is an Interop 2024 focus area, that Firefox has expressed a positive standards position, and that the Bugzilla issue has had some recent activity and has been assigned, I am optimistic it would ship in Firefox soon (edit: it shipped 5 days after writing these lines, in Firefox 128 🎉). My guess it that it would become Baseline by the end of 2024.

Even if my prediction is off, it already is available to 83% of users worldwide, and if you sort its caniuse page by usage, you will see the vast majority of the remaining 17% doesn’t come from Firefox, but from older Chrome and Safari versions. I think its current market share warrants production use today, as long as we use @supports to make sure things work in non-supporting browsers, even if less pretty.

Most Relative Colors tutorials revolve around its primary driving use cases: making tints and shades or other color variations by tweaking a specific color component up or down, and/or overriding a color component with a fixed value, like the example above. While this does address some very common pain points, it is merely scratching the surface of what RCS enables. This article explores a more advanced use case, with the hope that it will spark more creative uses of RCS in the wild.

The CSS contrast-color() function

One of the big longstanding CSS pain points is that it’s impossible to automatically specify a text color that is guaranteed to be readable on arbitrary backgrounds, e.g. white on darker colors and black on lighter ones.

Why would one need that? The primary use case is when colors are outside the CSS author’s control. This includes:

  • User-defined colors. An example you’re likely familiar with: GitHub labels. Think of how you select an arbitrary color when creating a label and GitHub automatically picks the text color — often poorly (we’ll see why in a bit)
  • Colors defined by another developer. E.g. you’re writing a web component that supports certain CSS variables for styling. You could require separate variables for the text and background, but that reduces the usability of your web component by making it more of a hassle to use. Wouldn’t it be great if it could just use a sensible default, that you can, but rarely need to override?
  • Colors defined by an external design system, like Open Props, Material Design, or even (gasp) Tailwind.

Screenshot from GitHub issues showing many different labels with different colors

GitHub Labels are an example where colors are user-defined, and the UI needs to pick a text color that works with them. GitHub uses WCAG 2.1 to determine the text color, which is why (as we will see in the next section) the results are often poor.

Even in a codebase where every line of CSS code is controlled by a single author, reducing couplings can improve modularity and facilitate code reuse.

The good news is that this is not going to be a pain point for much longer. The CSS function contrast-color() was designed to address exactly that. This is not new, you may have heard of it as color-contrast() before, an earlier name. I recently drove consensus to scope it down to an MVP that addresses the most prominent pain points and can actually ship soonish, as it circumvents some very difficult design decisions that had caused the full-blown feature to stall. I then added it to the spec per WG resolution, though some details still need to be ironed out.

Usage will look like this:

background: var(--color);
color: contrast-color(var(--color));

Glorious, isn’t it? Of course, soonish in spec years is still, well, years. As a data point, you can see in my past spec work that with a bit of luck (and browser interest), it can take as little as 2 years to get a feature shipped across all major browsers after it’s been specced. When the standards work is also well-funded, there have even been cases where a feature went from conception to baseline in 2 years, with Cascade Layers being the poster child for this: proposal by Miriam in Oct 2019, shipped in every major browser by Mar 2022. But 2 years is still a long time (and there are no guarantees it won’t be longer). What is our recourse until then?

As you may have guessed from the title, the answer is yes. It may not be pretty, but there is a way to emulate contrast-color() (or something close to it) using Relative Colors.

Using RCS to automatically compute a contrasting text color

In the following we will use the OKLCh color space, which is the most perceptually uniform polar color space that CSS supports.

Let’s assume there is a Lightness value above which black text is guaranteed to be readable regardless of the chroma and hue, and below which white text is guaranteed to be readable. We will validate that assumption later, but for now let’s take it for granted. In the rest of this article, we’ll call that value the threshold and represent it as Lthreshold.

We will compute this value more rigously in the next section (and prove that it actually exists!), but for now let’s use 0.7 (70%). We can assign it to a variable to make it easier to tweak:

--l-threshold: 0.7;

Let’s work backwards from the desired result. We want to come up with an expression that is composed of widely supported CSS math functions, and will return 1 if LLthreshold and 0 otherwise. If we could write such an expression, we could then use that value as the lightness of a new color:

--l: /* ??? */;
color: oklch(var(--l) 0 0);

How could we simplify the task? One way is to relax what our expression needs to return. We don’t actually need an exact 0 or 1 If we can manage to find an expression that will give us 0 when L > Lthreshold and > 1 when LLthreshold, we can just use clamp(0, /* expression */, 1) to get the desired result.

One idea would be to use ratios, as they have this nice property where they are > 1 if the numerator is larger than the denominator and ≤ 1 otherwise.

The ratio of LLthreshold is > 1 for LLthreshold and < 1 when L > Lthreshold. This means that LLthreshold1 will be a negative number for L > Lthreshold and a positive one for L > Lthreshold. Then all we need to do is multiply that expression by a huge number so that the positive number is guaranteed to be over 1.

Putting it all together, it looks like this:

--l-threshold: 0.7;
--l: clamp(0, (var(--l-threshold) / l - 1) * infinity, 1);
color: oklch(from var(--color) var(--l) 0 h);

One worry might be that if L gets close enough to the threshold we could get a number between 0 - 1, but in my experiments this never happened, presumably since precision is finite.

Fallback for browsers that don’t support RCS

The last piece of the puzzle is to provide a fallback for browsers that don’t support RCS. We can use @supports with any color property and any relative color value as the test, e.g.:

.contrast-color {
	/* Fallback */
	background: hsl(0 0 0 / 50%);
	color: white;

@supports (color: oklch(from red l c h)) { –l: clamp(0, (var(–l-threshold) / l - 1) * infinity, 1); color: oklch(from var(–color) var(–l) 0 h); background: none; } }

In the spirit of making sure things work in non-supporting browsers, even if less pretty, some fallback ideas could be:

  • A white or semi-transparent white background with black text or vice versa.
  • -webkit-text-stroke with a color opposite to the text color. This works better with bolder text, since half of the outline is inside the letterforms.
  • Many text-shadow values with a color opposite to the text color. This works better with thinner text, as it’s drawn behind the text.

Does this mythical L threshold actually exist?

In the previous section we’ve made a pretty big assumption: That there is a Lightness value (Lthreshold) above which black text is guaranteed to be readable regardless of the chroma and hue, and below which white text is guaranteed to be readable regardless of the chroma and hue. But does such a value exist? It is time to put this claim to the test.

When people first hear about perceptually uniform color spaces like Lab, LCH or their improved versions, OkLab and OKLCH, they imagine that they can infer the contrast between two colors by simply comparing their L(ightness) values. This is unfortunately not true, as contrast depends on more factors than perceptual lightness. However, there is certainly significant correlation between Lightness values and contrast.

At this point, I should point out that while most web designers are aware of the WCAG 2.1 contrast algorithm, which is part of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and baked into law in many countries, it has been known for years that it produces extremely poor results. So bad in fact that in some tests it performs almost as bad as random chance for any color that is not very light or very dark. There is a newer contrast algorithm, APCA that produces far better results, but is not yet part of any standard or legislation, and there have previously been some bumps along the way with making it freely available to the public (which seem to be largely resolved).

Some text
Some text
Which of the two seems more readable? You may be surprised to find that the white text version fails WCAG 2.1, while the black text version even passes WCAG AAA!

So where does that leave web authors? In quite a predicament as it turns out. It seems that the best way to create accessible color pairings right now is a two step process:

  • Use APCA to ensure actual readability
  • Compliance failsafe: Ensure the result does not actively fail WCAG 2.1.

I ran some quick experiments using Color.js where I iterate over the OKLCh reference range (loosely based on the P3 gamut) in increments of increasing granularity and calculate the lightness ranges for colors where white was the “best” text color (= produced higher contrast than black) and vice versa. I also compute the brackets for each level (fail, AA, AAA, AAA+) for both APCA and WCAG.

I then turned my exploration into an interactive playground where you can run the same experiments yourself, potentially with narrower ranges that fit your use case, or with higher granularity.

Calculating lightness ranges and contrast brackets for black and white on different background colors.

This is the table produced with C ∈ [0, 0.4] (step = 0.025) and H ∈ [0, 360) (step = 1):

Text colorLevelAPCAWCAG 2.1
MinMaxMinMax
whitebest0%75.2%0%61.8%
fail71.6%100%62.4%100%
AA62.7%80.8%52.3%72.1%
AAA52.6%71.7%42%62.3%
AAA+0%60.8%0%52.7%
blackbest66.1%100%52%100%
fail0%68.7%0%52.7%
AA60%78.7%42%61.5%
AAA69.4%87.7%51.4%72.1%
AAA+78.2%100%62.4%100%

Note that these are the min and max L values for each level. E.g. the fact that white text can fail WCAG when L ∈ [62.4%, 100%] doesn’t mean that every color with L > 62.4% will fail WCAG, just that some do. So, we can only draw meaningful conclusions by inverting the logic: Since all white text failures are have an L ∈ [62.4%, 100%], it logically follows that if L < 62.4%, white text will pass WCAG regardless of what the color is.

By applying this logic to all ranges, we can draw similar guarantees for many of these brackets:

0% to 52.7%52.7% to 62.4%62.4% to 66.1%66.1% to 68.7%68.7% to 71.6%71.6% to 75.2%75.2% to 100%
Compliance WCAG 2.1white✅ AA✅ AA
black✅ AA✅ AAA✅ AAA✅ AAA✅ AAA✅ AAA+
Readability APCAwhite😍 Best😍 Best😍 Best🙂 OK🙂 OK
black🙂 OK🙂 OK😍 Best
Contrast guarantees we can infer for black and white text over arbitrary colors. OK = passes but is not necessarily best.

You may have noticed that in general, WCAG has a lot of false negatives around white text, and tends to place the Lightness threshold much lower than APCA. This is a known issue with the WCAG algorithm.

Therefore, to best balance readability and compliance, we should use the highest threshold we can get away with. This means:

  • If passing WCAG is a requirement, the highest threshold we can use is 62.3%.
  • If actual readability is our only concern, we can safely ignore WCAG and pick a threshold somewhere between 68.7% and 71.6%, e.g. 70%.

Here’s a demo so you can see how they both play out. Edit the color below to see how the two thresholds work in practice, and compare with the actual contrast brackets, shown on the table next to (or below) the color picker.

Your browser does not support Relative Color Syntax, so the demo below will not work. This is what it looks like in a supporting browser: Screenshot of demo

Lthreshold = 70%
Lthreshold = 62.3%
Actual contrast ratios
Text color APCA WCAG 2.1
White
Black

Avoid colors marked “P3+”, “PP” or “PP+”, as these are almost certainly outside your screen gamut, and browsers currently do not gamut map properly, so the visual result will be off.

Note that if your actual color is more constrained (e.g. a subset of hues or chromas or a specific gamut), you might be able to balance these tradeoffs better by using a different threshold. Run the experiment yourself with your actual range of colors and find out!

Here are some examples of narrower ranges I have tried and the highest threshold that still passes WCAG 2.1:

Description Color range Threshold
Modern low-end screens Colors within the sRGB gamut 65%
Modern high-end screens Colors within the P3 gamut 64.5%
Future high-end screens Colors within the Rec.2020 gamut 63.4%
Neutrals C ∈ [0, 0.03] 67%
Muted colors C ∈ [0, 0.1] 65.6%
Warm colors (reds/oranges/yellows) H ∈ [0, 100] 66.8%
Pinks/Purples H ∈ [300, 370] 67%

It is particularly interesting that the threshold is improved to 64.5% by just ignoring colors that are not actually displayable on modern screens. So, assuming (though sadly this is not an assumption that currently holds true) that browsers prioritize preserving lightness when gamut mapping, we could use 64.5% and still guarantee WCAG compliance.

You can even turn this into a utility class that you can combine with different thesholds:

.contrast-color {
	--l: clamp(0, (var(--l-threshold, 0.623) / l - 1) * infinity, 1);
	color: oklch(from var(--color) var(--l) 0 h);
}

.pink { –l-threshold: 0.67; }

Conclusion & Future work

Putting it all together, including a fallback, as well as a “fall forward” that uses contrast-color(), the utility class could look like this:

.contrast-color {
	/* Fallback for browsers that don't support RCS */
	color: white;
	text-shadow: 0 0 .05em black, 0 0 .05em black, 0 0 .05em black, 0 0 .05em black;

@supports (color: oklch(from red l c h)) { –l: clamp(0, (var(–l-threshold, 0.623) / l - 1) * infinity, 1); color: oklch(from var(–color) var(–l) 0 h); text-shadow: none; }

@supports (color: contrast-color(red)) { color: contrast-color(var(–color)); text-shadow: none; } }

This is only a start. I can imagine many directions for improvement such as:

  • Since RCS allows us to do math with any of the color components in any color space, I wonder if there is a better formula that still be implemented in CSS and balances readability and compliance even better. E.g. I’ve had some chats with Andrew Somers (creator of APCA) right before publishing this, which suggest that doing math on luminance (the Y component of XYZ) instead could be a promising direction.
  • We currently only calculate thresholds for white and black text. However, in real designs, we rarely want pure black text, which is why contrast-color() only guarantees a “very light or very dark color” unless the max keyword is used. How would this extend to darker tints of the background color?

Addendum

As often happens, after publishing this blog post, a ton of folks reached out to share all sorts of related work in the space. I thought I’d share some of the most interesting findings here.

Using luminance instead of Lightness

When colors have sufficiently different lightness values (as happens with white or black text), humans disregard chromatic contrast (the contrast that hue/colorfulness provide) and basically only use lightness contrast to determine readability. This is why L can be such a good predictor of whether white or black text works best.

Another measure, luminance, is basically the color’s Y component in the XYZ color space, and a good threshold for flipping to black text is when Y > 0.36. This gives us another method for computing a text color:

--y-threshold: 0.36;
--y: clamp(0, (var(--y-threshold) / y - 1) * infinity, 1);
color: color(from var(--color) xyz-d65 var(--y) var(--y) var(--y));

As you can see in this demo by Lloyd Kupchanko, using Ythreshold > 36% very closely predicts the best text color as determined by APCA.

In my tests (codepen) it appeared to work as well as the Lthreshold method, i.e. it was a struggle to find colors where they disagree. However, after this blog post, Lloyd added various Lthreshold boundaries to his demo, and it appears that indeed, Lthreshold has a wider range where it disagrees with APCA than Ythreshold does.

Given this, my recommendation would be to use the Ythreshold method if you need to flip between black and white text, and the Lthreshold method if you need to customize the text color further (e.g. have a very dark color instead of black).

Browser bug & workarounds

About a week after publishing this post, I discovered a browser bug with color-mix() and RCS, where colors defined via color-mix() used in from render RCS invalid. You can use this testcase to see if a given browser is affected. This has been fixed in Chrome 125 and Safari TP release 194, but it certainly throws a spanner in the works since the whole point of using this technique is that we don’t have to care how the color was defined.

There are two ways to work around this:

  1. Adjust the @supports condition to use color-mix(), like so:
@supports (color: oklch(from color-mix(in oklch, red, tan) l c h)) {
	/* ... */
}

The downside is that right now, this would restrict the set of browsers this works in to a teeny tiny set. 2. Register the custom property that contains the color:

@property --color {
	syntax: "<color>";
	inherits: true;
	initial-value: transparent;
}

This completely fixes it, since if the property is registered, by the time the color hits RCS, it’s just a resolved color value. @property is currently supported by a much wider set of browsers than RCS, so this workaround doesn’t hurt compatiblity at all.

Useful resources

Many people have shared useful resources on the topic, such as:

Thanks to Chris Lilley, Andrew Somers, Cory LaViska, Elika Etemad, and Tab Atkins-Bittner for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.


Releasing Color.js: A library that takes color seriously

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Related: Chris’ blog post for the release of Color.js

This post has been long overdue: Chris and I started working on Color.js in 2020, over 2 years ago! It was shortly after I had finished the Color lecture for the class I was teaching at MIT and I was appalled by the lack of color libraries that did the things I needed for the demos in my slides. I asked Chris, “Hey, what if we make a Color library? You will bring your Color Science knowledge and I will bring my JS and API design knowledge. Wouldn’t this be the coolest color library ever?”. There was also a fair bit of discussion in the CSS WG about a native Color object for the Web Platform, and we needed to play around with JS for a while before we could work on an API that would be baked into browsers.

We had a prototype ready in a few months and presented it to the CSS WG. People loved it and some started using it despite it not being “officially” released. There was even a library that used Color.js as a dependency!

Once we got some experience from this usage, we worked on a draft specification for a Color API for the Web. In July 2021 we presented it again in a CSS WG Color breakout and everyone agreed to incubate it in WICG, where it lives now.

Why can’t we just standardize the API in Color.js? While one is influenced by the other, a Web Platform API has different constraints and needs to follow more restricted design principles compared to a JS library, which can be more flexible. E.g. exotic properties (things like color.lch.l) are very common in JS libraries, but are now considered an antipattern in Web Platform APIs.

Work on Color.js as well as the Color API continued, on and off as time permitted, but no release. There were always things to do and bugs to fix before more eyes would look at it. Because eyes were looking at it anyway, we even slapped a big fat warning on the homepage:

Eventually a few days ago, I discovered that the Color.js package we had published on npm somehow has over 6000 downloads per week, nearly all of them direct. I would not bat an eyelid at those numbers if we had released Color.js into the wild, but for a library we actively avoided mentioning to anyone outside of standards groups, it was rather odd.

How did this happen? Maybe it was the HTTP 203 episode that mentioned it in passing? Regardless, it gave us hope that it’s filling a very real need in the pretty crowded space of color manipulation libraries and it gave us a push to finally get it out there.

So here we are, releasing Color.js into the wild. So what’s cool about it?

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Original, Releases, Colors, Color API, Color Science, Color, CSS Color 4, CSS Color 5, ESM, JS, Web Standards
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Dark mode in 5 minutes, with inverted lightness variables

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By now, you probably know that you can use custom properties for individual color components, to avoid repeating the same color coordinates multiple times throughout your theme. You may even know that you can use the same variable for multiple components, e.g. HSL hue and lightness:

:root {
	--primary-hs: 250 30%;
}

h1 {
	color: hsl(var(--primary-hs) 30%);
}

article {
	background: hsl(var(--primary-hs) 90%);
}

article h2 {
	background: hsl(var(--primary-hs) 40%);
	color: white;
}

Here is a very simple page designed with this technque:

Unlike preprocessor variables, you could even locally override the variable, to have blocks with a different accent color:

:root {
	--primary-hs: 250 30%;
	--secondary-hs: 190 40%;
}

article {
	background: hsl(var(--primary-hs) 90%);
}

article.alt {
	--primary-hs: var(--secondary-hs);
}

This is all fine and dandy, until dark mode comes into play. The idea of using custom properties to make it easier to adapt a theme to dark mode is not new. However, in every article I have seen, the strategy suggested is to create a bunch of custom properties, one for each color, and override them in a media query.

This is a fine approach, and you’ll likely want to do that for at least part of your colors eventually. However, even in the most disciplined of designs, not every color is a CSS variable. You often have colors declared inline, especially grays (e.g. the footer color in our example). This means that adding a dark mode is taxing enough that you may put it off for later, especially on side projects.

The trick I’m going to show you will make anyone who knows enough about color cringe (sorry Chris!) but it does help you create a dark mode that works in minutes. It won’t be great, and you should eventually tweak it to create a proper dark mode (also dark mode is not just about swapping colors) but it’s better than nothing and can serve as a base.

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LCH colors in CSS: what, why, and how?

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I was always interested in color science. In 2014, I gave a talk about CSS Color 4 at various conferences around the world called “The Chroma Zone”. Even before that, in 2009, I wrote a color picker that used a hidden Java applet to support ICC color profiles to do CMYK properly, a first on the Web at the time (to my knowledge). I never released it, but it sparked this angry rant.

Color is also how I originally met my now husband, Chris Lilley: In my first CSS WG meeting in 2012, he approached me to ask a question about CSS and Greek, and once he introduced himself I said “You’re Chris Lilley, the color expert?!? I have questions for you!”. I later discovered that he had done even more cool things (he was a co-author of PNG and started SVG 🤯), but at the time, I only knew of him as “the W3C color expert”, that’s how much into color I was (I got my color questions answered much later, in 2015 that we actually got together).

My interest in color science was renewed in 2019, after I became co-editor of CSS Color 5, with the goal of fleshing out my color modification proposal, which aims to allow arbitrary tweaking of color channels to create color variations, and combine it with Una’s color modification proposal. LCH colors in CSS is something I’m very excited about, and I strongly believe designers would be outraged we don’t have them yet if they knew more about them.

What is LCH?

CSS Color 4 defines lch() colors, among other things, and as of recently, all major browsers have started implementing them or are seriously considering it:

LCH is a color space that has several advantages over the RGB/HSL colors we’re familiar with in CSS. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it a game-changer, and here’s why.

1. We actually get access to about 50% more colors.

This is huge. Currently, every CSS color we can specify, is defined to be in the sRGB color space. This was more than sufficient a few years ago, since all but professional monitors had gamuts smaller than sRGB. However, that’s not true any more. Today, the gamut (range of possible colors displayed) of most monitors is closer to P3, which has a 50% larger volume than sRGB. CSS right now cannot access these colors at all. Let me repeat: We have no access to one third of the colors in most modern monitors. And these are not just any colors, but the most vivid colors the screen can display. Our websites are washed out because monitor hardware evolved faster than CSS specs and browser implementations.

Gamut volume of sRGB vs P3

2. LCH (and Lab) is perceptually uniform

In LCH, the same numerical change in coordinates produces the same perceptual color difference. This property of a color space is called “perceptual uniformity”. RGB or HSL are not perceptually uniform. A very illustrative example is the following [example source]:

Both the colors in the first row, as well as the colors in the second row, only differ by 20 degrees in hue. Is the perceptual difference between them equal?

3. LCH lightness actually means something

In HSL, lightness is meaningless. Colors can have the same lightness value, with wildly different perceptual lightness. My favorite examples are yellow and blue. Believe it or not, both have the same HSL lightness!

Both of these colors have a lightness of 50%, but they are most certainly not equally light. What does HSL lightness actually mean then?

You might argue that at least lightness means something for constant hue and saturation, i.e. for adjustments within the same color. It is true that we do get a lighter color if we increase the HSL lightness and a darker one if we decrease it, but it’s not necessarily the same color:

Both of these have the same hue and saturation, but do they really look like darker and lighter variants of the same color?

With LCH, any colors with the same lightness are equally perceptually light, and any colors with the same chroma are equally perceptually saturated.

How does LCH work?

LCH stands for “Lightness Chroma Hue”. The parameters loosely correspond to HSL’s, however there are a few crucial differences:

The hue angles don’t fully correspond to HSL’s hues. E.g. 0 is not red, but more of a magenta and 180 is not turquoise but more of a bluish green, and is exactly complementary.

Note how these colors, while wildly different in hue, perceptually have the same lightness.

In HSL, saturation is a neat 0-100 percentage, since it’s a simple transformation of RGB into polar coordinates. In LCH however, Chroma is theoretically unbounded. LCH (like Lab) is designed to be able to represent the entire spectrum of human vision, and not all of these colors can be displayed by a screen, even a P3 screen. Not only is the maximum chroma different depending on screen gamut, it’s actually different per color.

This may be better understood with an example. For simplicity, assume you have a screen whose gamut exactly matches the sRGB color space (for comparison, the screen of a 2013 MacBook Air was about 60% of sRGB, although most modern screens are about 150% of sRGB, as discussed above). For L=50 H=180 (the cyan above), the maximum Chroma is only 35! For L=50 H=0 (the magenta above), Chroma can go up to 77 without exceeding the boundaries of sRGB. For L=50 H=320 (the purple above), it can go up to 108!

While the lack of boundaries can be somewhat unsettling (in people and in color spaces), don’t worry: if you specify a color that is not displayable in a given monitor, it will be scaled down so that it becomes visible while preserving its essence. After all, that’s not new: before monitors got gamuts wider than sRGB, this is what was happening with regular CSS colors when they were displayed in monitors with gamuts smaller than sRGB.

An LCH color picker

Hopefully, you are now somewhat excited about LCH, but how to visualize it?

I actually made this a while ago, primarily to help me, Chris, Adam, and Una in wrapping our heads around LCH sufficiently to edit CSS Color 5. It’s different to know the theory, and it’s different to be able to play with sliders and see the result. I even bought a domain, css.land, to host similar demos eventually. We used it a fair bit, and Chris got me to add a few features too, but I never really posted about it, so it was only accessible to us, and anybody that noticed its Github repo.

Why not just use an existing LCH color picker?

  • The conversion code for this is written by Chris, and he was confident the math is at least intended to be correct (i.e. if it’s wrong it’s a bug in the code, not a gap in understanding)
  • The Chroma is not 0-100 like in some color pickers we found
  • We wanted to allow inputting arbitrary CSS colors (the “Import…” button above)
  • We wanted to allow inputting decimals (the sliders only do integers, but the black number inputs allow any number)
  • I wanted to be able to store colors, and see how they interpolate.
  • We wanted to be able to see whether the LCH color was within sRGB, P3, (or Rec.2020, an even larger color space).
  • We wanted alpha
  • And lastly, because it’s fun! Especially since it’s implemented with Mavo (and a little bit of JS, this is not a pure Mavo HTML demo).

Recently, Chris posted it in a whatwg/html issue thread and many people discovered it, so it nudged me to post about it, so, here it is: css.land/lch

FAQ

Based on the questions I got after I posted this article, I should clarify a few common misconceptions.

“You said that these colors are not implemented yet, but I see them in your article”

All of the colors displayed in this article are within the sRGB gamut, exactly because we can’t display those outside it yet. sRGB is a color space, not a syntax. E.g. rgb(255 0 0) and lch(54.292% 106.839 40.853) specify the same color.

“How does the LCH picker display colors outside sRGB?”

It doesn’t. Neither does any other on the Web (to my knowledge). The color picker is implemented with web technologies, and therefore suffers from the same issues. It has to scale them down to display something similar, that is within sRGB (it used to just clip the RGB components to 0-100%, but thanks to this PR from Tab it now uses a far superior algorithm: it just reduces the Chroma until the color is within sRGB). This is why increasing the Chroma doesn’t produce a brighter color beyond a certain point: because that color cannot be displayed with CSS right now.

“I’ve noticed that Firefox displays more vivid colors than Chrome and Safari, is that related?”

Firefox does not implement the spec that restricts CSS colors to sRGB. Instead, it just throws the raw RGB coordinates on the screen, so e.g. rgb(100% 0% 0%) is the brightest red your screen can display. While this may seem like a superior solution, it’s incredibly inconsistent: specifying a color is approximate at best, since every screen displays it differently. By restricting CSS colors to a known color space (sRGB) we gained device independence. LCH and Lab are also device independent as they are based on actual measured color.

What about color(display-p3 r g b)? Safari supports that since 2017!

I was notified of this after I posted this article. I was aware Safari was implementing this syntax a while ago, but somehow missed that they shipped it. In fact, WebKit published an article about this syntax last month! How exciting!

color(colorspaceid params) is another syntax added by CSS Color 4 and is the swiss army knife of color management in CSS: in its full glory it allows specifying an ICC color profile and colors from it (e.g. you want real CMYK colors on a webpage? You want Pantone? With color profiles, you can do that too!). It also supports some predefined color spaces, of which display-p3 is one. So, for example, color(display-p3 0 1 0) gives us the brightest green in the P3 color space. You can use this test case to test support: you’ll see red if color() is not supported and bright green if it is.

Exciting as it may be (and I should tweak the color picker to use it when available!), do note that it only addresses the first issue I mentioned: getting to all gamut colors. However, since it’s RGB-based, it still suffers from the other issues of RGB. It is not perceptually uniform, and is difficult to create variants (lighter or darker, more or less vivid etc) by tweaking its parameters.

Furthermore, it’s a short-term solution. It works now, because screens that can display a wider gamut than P3 are rare. Once hardware advances again, color(display-p3 ...) will have the same problem as sRGB colors have today. LCH and Lab are device independent, and can represent the entire gamut of human vision so they will work regardless of how hardware advances.

How does LCH relate to the Lab color space that I know from Photoshop and other applications?

LCH is the same color space as Lab, just viewed differently! Take a look at the following diagram that I made for my students:

The L in Lab and LCH is exactly the same (perceptual Lightness). For a given lightness L, in Lab, a color has cartesian coordinates (L, a, b) and polar coordinates (L, C, H). Chroma is just the length of the line from 0 to point (a, b) and Hue is the angle of that ray. Therefore, the formulae to convert Lab to LCH are trivial one liners: C is sqrt(a² + b²) and H is atan(b/a) (with different handling if a = 0). atan() is just the reverse of tan(), i.e. tan(H) = b/a.

Articles, CSS WG, Original, Releases, Color, Color Science, CSS Color 4, CSS Color 5, LCH, Web Standards
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