Thursday, July 28, 2005

What sort of problems does colorblindness cause artists and art students?

"I paint dead people."

I usually explain my colorblindness like this: "I don't see red or green as well as most people. So if I'm looking at a purple that's very blue, I might think it's blue, since I don't pick up the red in it." Turns out that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to oil painting. My teacher says I tend to make everything too cold, that is, not red enough. In a way, that makes sense--I don't see the red in the model's skin, say, so I don't mix it into my paint on my pallet.

But there are also times where I make the opposite mistake--I mix too red a color and start slathering it on. I suppose that makes sense as well--I don't realize how red my mixture is--but there's something contradictory about those mistakes, and I'm not sure how it happens.

On the above assignment (a self-portrait from a photo reference), I made both errors at different stages. First, I used Color Quest X, a Mac application that names the color of any pixel you select onscreen, to identify the colors of my photographed face. It called the shadow areas "dull red" and the bright spots "soft purple," which led me to make the shadow areas very red in my first attempt. That made sense to me from a color theory perspective, since the cool morning daylight should have given me cool highlights and warm shadows. But I went too far. My teacher said, "You're looking kind of like Lobster Man." And she told me to add yellow to the light areas.

So I redid it, and the results are posted above. During the in-class criticism, my teacher asked my classmates to focus on issues other than color, but I asked for color feedback as well. I said, "It would help me to know what I can and can't see. Looking at the photo now, I would say the whole painting is too warm overall," at which point my teacher and several classmates shook their heads. "Too cold," she said.

"As in dead cold?" I asked.

"Almost," she said.

Looking at the JPEG's side-by-side, I do think the photo has more red in it than the painting, but that wasn't obvious to me before. It's embarrassing, and it it tells me that I can't trust myself to make correct temperature decisions (makes sense if red influences temperature)--a problem I didn't think I had. (The side-by-side comparison makes other errors more obvious as well, like the faulty nose proportions and some errors in value--turns out this is a good tool to use for self-checking.)

Some illustrators report using their spouses to double-check their color choices, which makes sense for digital work. For painting, however, I would need to have someone hovering over me as I mix each color. Not so practical. So despite my desire to learn everything I can, my wish to be equally accountable, I've accepted my teacher's suggestion and will do my subsequent assignments in a monochromatic or very limited pallet.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What sort of work are colorblind artists producing?

Last summer, in a panic as I was about to enter art school, I searched online for evidence that it was, in fact, possible to be a colorblind artist. Googling "colorblind" or "colorblind artist" yields a gazillion responses, but most take "colorblind" as a metaphor; hence Google spat back a bunch of song lyrics, poems, artworks, and treatises on racism and social policy. But sometimes colorblind is just colorblind, eh?

So, below is a handful of more relevant finds. None of these sites discusses colorblindness in any depth, but they are proof positive that competent colorblind visual artists are out there doing a variety of work. (I've been gradually emailing them to ask for advice, which I'll include as it comes in.)

Jonathan Grundlach, a painter who uses a limited pallet:

Robert McCall, an illustrator of spaceflight-themed work:
(McCall is interviewed by CNN at this site:

Einar Lunden, a cartoonist and children's book illustrator (with a great blog):

Royce Deans, a figurative painter:
(Deans is interviewed by Artist Perspectives at this site:

Peter Milton, a painter who became a printmaker upon learning of his colorblindness:

Michael Pickett, a painter who describes himself as "a colorblind artist with dyslexia":

Rob Bergerson, a sci-fi/fantasy artist:

Christopher Smart, a marine life artist:

Albert Uderz, illustrator of the Asterix historical comic book series is also colorblind, though Wikipedia reports that "his vision has greatly improved" (Can't imagine what the hell that means):

Also, in the book Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Oliver Sachs includes an essay called "The Case of the Colorblind Painter" about a painter who completely loses his color vision at midlife and has to reinvent himself as an artist.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What is the purpose of this blog?

This should really be called "The Colorblind Art Student." Actually, "The Color-deficient Art Student." More precisely, "The Anomalous Trichomat Art Student." (At least I think that's what I am.)

The chief purpose is to solicit and share suggestions from the outside world about coping with colorblindness as an artist/ illustrator. I'm now beginning my second year of art school, knee deep in oil paint and turpenoid, and aggravated as hell. I know of a couple successful colorblind artists out there, and I'm told there are many more. Wouldn't it be helpful for us mildly disabled, mildly discouraged beginners to get some mentorship?

I invite more questions, but here are some starters:

What is colorblindness exactly?
How does one get a clearer sense of what he/she can see or not see accurately?
What principles of color theory and painting can guide our choices, even when we're not sure what we see?
What tools (books, software, etc.) can make things easier?
What sort of work are colorblind artists producing out there?

Since this may find no audience at all, I'll at least use this space to record what I learn and make some sense of it.