Exploring the Secrets of a Color Blind Artist’s Work

How can an understanding of color blindness reveal new ways of seeing a painting?

Brian Brooks and his labeled watercolor tray. "Color Blind" is a misleading term: the vast majority of people see a limited range of color rather than an absence.
Brian Brooks and his labeled watercolor tray. The word “Color blind”, like the black-and-white in this photo, is misleading: the vast majority of people see a limited range of color rather than an absence.

While I was working on my color-blindness-simulating paintings of Brian’s watercolor trays, it opened up an ongoing conversation between us as two visual artists: him red-green color blind, and me with color vision in the normal range.

An obvious question emerged: If he’s seeing his tray of colors very differently, how does it show up in the paintings he creates?

What does it mean to use colors that are essentially unseeable?

I took a closer look at his paintings.

The painting itself can reveal a difference in perception

Brian Brooks, Creatures In The Cafeteria, 2012, acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 24 inches
Brian Brooks, Creatures In The Cafeteria, 2012, acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 24 inches

The painting Creatures In The Cafeteria is one of the few very clear examples of color blindness altering the intent of Brian’s work. It shows up most strongly in the tint of green and pink on the floorboards.

How did the painting look to Brian while he was painting?

To help simulate Brian’s vision while I was painting, I used an app on my phone that simulated color blindness through the phone’s built-in camera.

Brian Brooks, Creatures In The Cafeteria, 2012, acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 24 inches (Filtered to simulate how a red-green color blind person sees)
Red-green color blind filtered view of Creatures In The Cafeteria

Simulating the difference for a red-green color blind audience

It’s easy to simulate color blind vision with apps and filters for color normal people, but it’s harder to demonstrate the differences to color blind people themselves.  I tinted the floorboards with false colors that are within most color blind people’s range of vision to simulate how colorful they look, to color normal people, in the original painting.

Brian Brooks, Creatures In The Cafeteria, 2012, acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 24 inches (False Color to Simulate Tinted Floorboards to a Color Blind Audience)
I added false color to Creatures in the Cafeteria to selected floorboards to simulate tinted floorboards to a color blind audience.

Sometimes I see similarity where he sees difference

Brian Brooks, Sun With Paperwork In Park, Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4.5 inches
Brian Brooks, Sun With Paperwork In Park, Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4.5 inches

When Brian was painting this picture, he told me he had messed it up because the grass colors were too different.

Red-green color blind filtered view of painting: Brian Brooks, Sun With Paperwork In Park, Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4.5 inches
Red-green color blind filtered view of  Sun With Paperwork In Park

After seeing this simulation, I finally understood why he thought the grass was inconsistent.

I created the simulation below, changing the green rainbows to blue ones and the grass to various shades of blue, to simulate for him how harmonious the greens looked to me.

False color view of painting--blue to show unity of grass: Brian Brooks, Sun With Paperwork In Park, Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4.5 inches
False color view, with blue representing unity of green, of Sun With Paperwork In Park

He can effectively use colors he doesn’t see without knowing it

People often ask “how he uses” colors like pink and green when he doesn’t see them as distinct from, respectively, gray and red. He tells me he keeps track of where they go, and he typically uses all colors effectively–even impressively.

I’ve come across several other artists who are colorblind, and have had friends enthusiastically tell me about color blind artists they know who create very colorful work.  It’s even been speculated (though I’m not convinced) that Van Gogh was color blind.

Sometimes when Brian uses a full range of colors, I tell him to imagine a painting as twice as colorful as he thinks it is.

Colorful-Dogs-New-Shirt-animated_Updated
Animated GIF showing red-green color blind simulation: Brian Brooks, Colorful Dog’s New Shirt, 2013, acrylic on wood panel, 18x 24 inches

Colorful-Dogs-New-Shirt-768x1017 Sometimes the “extra” color adds just the right touch.  For this painting of dogs viewing a horse painting a lake in a painting, the simulation of red-green color blind painting comes first, followed by the full color version.

Red-green colorblind-filtered view of Brian Brooks, Dogs Viewing Horse Painting Lake In A Painting, 2013, acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches
Red-green colorblind-filtered view: Brian Brooks, Dogs Viewing Horse Painting Lake In A Painting, 2013, acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches

 

Brian Brooks, Brian Brooks, Dogs Viewing Horse Painting Lake In A Painting, 2013, acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches
Brian Brooks, Dogs Viewing Horse Painting Lake In A Painting, 2013, acrylic on paper, 18 x 24 inches. Note the blending of red and green in the top left dog’s face.

I wish he could see the red night sky and green trees in the upper right, and the pinkish brush in the horse’s mouth, and the candy-colored left mountaintop.

He has added secret colors in for us without being totally aware of it. And it exposes something important: how your own work–or your own life–looks to you is rarely how it looks to other people.

How did Brian’s work change as he became more aware of the differences in his vision?  The next post explores how he has worked this knowledge into his practice. 

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