Saturday, February 3, 2007

Colorblindness

[Update:  Sir William Orpen, the well-known Irish portrait painter, was also colorblind.]

I surprise people when I tell them I'm colorblind. What, an artist -- colorblind? Well, it surprised me, too, when I found out. I'd been painting for several years and teaching and winning awards before my affliction was discovered by an ophthamologist.

The fact that I win awards and sell my paintings validates me as an artist of some skill. Apparently my colorblindness has little or no affect on my work.

Or does it?

Let me step back a bit and explain colorblindness and my version of it. Despite the popular misconception, colorblind people don't see the world in shades of black and white; they do indeed see colors. There are also many kinds of colorblindness. I have only a degree of colorblindess, and it's the red-green kind that affects 5 out of 100 males. I can see red and green, but if they are sufficiently grayed, I have trouble distinguishing a very neutral red from a very neutral green. They look like the same gray to me.

I once had a gray shirt that I loved because it went with everything I wore. But then a friend informed me that this shirt was really green. I don't think I wore it again, because I could never be sure if it went with whatever color of pants I'd picked out that day.

As an artist, this discovery was unsettling. I wanted to learn more about colorblindness. One discovery: I'm not alone. There are many of us out there. Another discovery: Colorblind artists compensate by using color that is more intense or that has a higher chroma. And this is where I find my success.

People often comment on the rich colors I use, especially in my pastels. Also, I avoid grays, such as that gray shirt I used to have. If I see a gray in the landscape, I try to determine what color family it belongs to. If I can't, and it looks completely neutral to me, I make darn sure when I mix it to "push" it into a definite color family. My colorblindness forces me from being a wishy-washy colorist to one who takes a stand.

Accompanying this essay is my painting, "Birches & the Big House," a 5x7 I did on-location last week. This one has lots of grays, grays that I purposely pushed into definite color families.

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