Painting the Palette of a Color Blind Artist 

We know not everyone sees the world in the same way. But do we ever really think about it?

Me with my painting Portrait of a Color Blind Artist’s Watercolor Tray — Red-Green Color Blind Simulation, 2016, oil on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches. This is what Brian’s new watercolor palette looked like to him when he first handed it to me to be labeled. Photo by Brian Brooks
Me with my painting Portrait of a Color Blind Artist’s Watercolor Tray — Red-Green Color Blind Simulation, 2016, oil on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches.

An offhand remark can be life-changing.  My boyfriend, Brian Brooks, is red-green color blind, and asked me one day if I could label his watercolor tray so he would stop mixing up reds and greens and browns. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

I set out to discover, capture, and communicate the difference in the way we saw color by creating two oil paintings showing Brian’s palette through his eyes and mine.

Color Blind Artist’s Used Watercolor Tray, Oil on Wood Panel, [dimensions]. Emily Wick 2016. Photo by Brian Brooks
Me with my painting Portrait of a Color Blind Artist’s Watercolor Tray, Oil on Wood Panel, 24 x 36 inches. Photo by Brian Brooks

About Color Blindness

Color blind people are technically referred to as “color vision deficient” or CVD. They can see some colors, but don’t perceive the full color spectrum that color normal humans can see.

The Visible Light Spectrum, As Seen By Someone With “Normal” Color Vision. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The visible light spectrum as seen by a color normal person. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most have a weakness in distinguishing reds, greens, and browns: this is called red-green color blindness or, more technically, protanopia or deuteranopia. It is among the mildest of handicaps: you can’t be a pilot, and your clothes might clash.

What does it mean to mix up red and green?

As an art student, Brian was frustrated with the idea of color mixing in painting classes, and turned to printmaking, which is based in black and white. He later built his career on graphic design and drawing, forms of art whose colors are fixed and easier to deal with than an open-ended palette. In the early 2010s, he began prolifically painting. 

He had a watercolor tray where the order of the colors was especially confusing, and he had me label it because he was always mixing up the red and green.

IMG_3054
Brian’s watercolor palette whose portrait I painted.

Think about that for a minute, if your color vision is normal.

Red and green are opposite hues.

If these could be mixed up, Brian must be seeing something completely different than what I saw.

What did his world look like?

After painting the labeled tray in full color, I set out to paint it through his eyes.

Emily Wick, Portrait of a Color Blind Artist’s Watercolor Tray - Red-Green Color Blind Simulation, 2016, oil on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches
Emily Wick, Portrait of a Color Blind Artist’s Watercolor Tray – Red-Green Color Blind Simulation, 2016, oil on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches

This blue and gold rainbow is widely understood as an accurate depiction of one type of red-green color blindness; specifically, in Brian’s case, deuteranomoly/deuteranopia.

How did I Simulate Color Blind Vision While Painting?

A simulator app called “Colorblind Vision” helped me to see in real time while painting.

Since color blindness is on a continuum, and the app showed the most severe form, Brian corrected me as I went along to best approximate his own vision. The painting I made to simulate Brian’s vision has a little more red than the color blindness filter.

I created this animated GIF that alternates between a color normal and color blind view of both paintings.

two-paintings-CB
Animated GIF showing alternating color blind filter on both paintings. Note that the painting on the left is slightly redder than the filter, which shows a severe form of red-green color blindness.

How different is it to be another person?

It’s so easy for me to think I see Brian’s blind spots, but really it makes me aware of how many I must have too. If such a big difference in actual vision–our clearest indicator of reality itself –is barely noticed, how can we even imagine the differences in our experiences of life?