On a recent visit to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I learned that the museum offers special glasses to colorblind visitors so they can see the full, truer colors of the museum artworks.
It certainly gave me pause. I’d never considered how colorblind people perceive art. That led to my next consideration of whether there are colorblind artists and how their color perceptions impact their work.
I would have liked to have found a local colorblind artist for some insights into it. But I knew it was a near impossibility to flush one out, considering how few people, particularly artists, are colorblind. Only about 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have the genetic color deficiency, according to a variety of sources.
People with this condition aren’t totally blind to any type of color. It just means that they perceive colors differently because the cone cells or receptors in their retinas function differently.
Experts say these people may not see certain colors or the range of colors, or some colors may seem to recede or go entirely unnoticed. The most common form of colorblindness deals with discrimination of colors in the red-green spectrum. A muted red, such as maroon, may look like mud. Greens may appear tan or a neutral gray with some yellow. It can result in portraits with the subject having a green skin tone or landscapes that are gray, maybe even pinkish. The artists may not be aware of the color miscalculations until someone points it out.
Apparently, there haven’t been many artists through history who have been confirmed as being colorblind. Claude Monet lost his ability to tell colors a part, but it was attributed to cataracts. A theory has been floated that Vincent van Gogh was colorblind, but it has been dispelled.
A 2017 New York Times interview with bestselling children’s books illustrator Loren Long documented his struggles with colorblindness, which was diagnosed when he was 14 years old. Long illustrated such books as the Otis the tractor series and “Of Thee I Sing” by former President Barack Obama.
Because Long excelled at art as a youth and he considered it his calling, his mother never allowed him to throw in the towel with his art simply because he was colorblind.
“I could draw and compose a picture, but still, not being able to see subtle hues, I realized I could never be a classical portrait painter,” Long said in the interview.
To overcome his color deficiency, he leaned on such tricks as always keeping tubes of paint with the names on them and putting colors on his palette in a certain order. He also learned to rely on color theory, the properties and principals of color — value and contrast, warm and cool colors. Principally, he relied on values — light, dark and middle tones — and let them define his pictures more than color.
I’ve heard various artists talk about the importance of color value and contrasts and how their effective use can make a good painting even better. That means colorblind artists who rely heavily on values are finding some power behind their condition.
But what about those colorblind folks who aren’t artists? How can their weakness in color differentiation be addressed so they can better enjoy art?
A London museum that presented an exhibit on painters’ use of color, particularly bold, brilliant colors, used LED technology to replicate light conditions that can change the way the brain perceives color. It allowed colorblind visitors to see the colors in the artwork more accurately.
Other museums, such as Crystal Bridges, have begun offering special glasses for their colorblind visitors. Crystal Bridges offers two types of glasses — one for indoors and one for outdoors — so artwork can be enjoyed in both the galleries and the North Forest outdoor exhibit space. The glasses are available for free at the museum lobby desks.
While inclusiveness is of unconditional importance, there is another level of thought to be considered. If art is about individual interpretation and preference, then does it matter if colorblind people don’t see art like everybody else?
Consider a quote by Impressionist painter Edgar Degas: “I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It’s false, and it is that falsity that constitutes art.”
Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.