How can an understanding of color blindness reveal new ways of seeing a painting?
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
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?
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.
Sometimes I see similarity where he sees difference
When Brian was painting this picture, he told me he had messed it up because the grass colors were too different.
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.
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.
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.
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.