Color blindness is more interesting than you think.
My latest project consists of two oil paintings of color blind artist’s watercolor palette, and a journey into the new world that it’s opened up.
It all started several years ago, when Brian asked me to label his watercolor tray because he was mixing up the reds and greens.
I’d always known he was red-green colorblind, but it’s such a mild and common condition that I didn’t think about it too often. Sometimes he’d ask if an indicator light was green, for example, when to me it was orange, or call something purple when I saw it as blue.
The Palette of a Color Blind Artist As Seen With Full Color Vision
After I labeled Brian’s watercolor tray, I couldn’t get its image out of my mind. I painted its portrait–in oils– larger than life.
If you are color blind, I’ll translate what this looks like to non-color-blind people as best I can: a tray that’s out of rainbow order, with some common colors, such as purple and magenta, totally absent, and others, such as red, repeated. The color labels are completely unnecessary. And imagine that there are only two or three dull, muddy colors.
While I worked on it, staring at the tray for hours on end, and procrastinating the completion of a technically demanding painting, I thought a lot about how it reflected a big difference in perception. How do you mix up red and green? Red and green are opposite colors. And if they look anything alike, the whole world must look different.
What did that world look like?
About Color Blindness
Red-green color blindness is common, affecting about 8% of males and 0.5% of females. “Color blind” people are technically referred to as “color vision deficient” or CVD. As many people know, most don’t totally see in black and white. They can see some colors, but don’t perceive the full color spectrum that humans with a “normal” range of color vision can see.
The vast majority of color blind people are red-green colorblind, meaning that they have a weakness in distinguishing reds, greens, and browns. It’s a genetic condition carried on the X chromosome, typically passed down by a mother with normal vision from her father to her male offspring.
The Color Blind Palette
How confusing was this tray in its unlabeled state? What did it look like when it was new, and he was choosing colors for the first time? My second painting offers a simulation of this experience for the non-color-blind.
If you’re color blind, I’ll again translate what this looks like to non-color-blind as best I can. To us, it’s a palette with essentially only two “real” colors–blue and yellow–and nearly a dozen shades of brown that encompass green and red (colors that, to us, are as rich and bright as blue and yellow). Brown, white, and black appear essentially unchanged.
The idea of distinguishing red and green from the golden browns in place of the reds and greens in this palette is incredibly confusing.
If That’s The Rainbow, Then What About The Rest Of The World?
This gold and sepia rainbow is widely understood as an accurate depiction of the most common type of red-green color blindness; specifically, in Brian’s case, deuteranomoly/deuteranopia. A simulator app called “Colorblind Vision” helped me to see in real time while painting.
Most of the discussions on color blindness center around practical considerations. Like a left-handed person in a right-handed world, there is not much to say about it until there’s something obviously built for the color-sighted: and indicator light that looks exactly the same orange as green, or a graph that uses indistinguishable pastels.
What I’m most interested in doesn’t have to do with street lights or board games. Or even the idea that missing these colors is somehow unfortunate. It’s the sheer difference in how the world looks, and the unawareness, on both sides, of that difference. How does it affect the rest of life?
Once I began to translate my world into theirs, there was something interesting around every corner: food and flowers, nature and culture, language and anatomy. How how we assume others see what we see. A mystery hidden in plain sight.