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.


At 5:22 AM, Blogger Stuart said...

Ow I feel your pain! When I was in art school a few years ago, we had to do a portrait of the person next to us. Anyway I drew my friend in pastels and I thought it was great. He came across and gave me a funny look, and I couldn't understand why he wasn't raving about my masterpiece. He asked if he was an alien or something, and that I'd painted him green.

Thanks for starting this blog, I'll be following it closely!

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Purple Skies said...

Thanks for your comment! I'm curious about the problems you still make (or how you avoid them) if you feel like posting about that--this blog should be conversation rather than a monologue.

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Color theory, color theory, color theory - that's the key to surviving as a colorblind artist. That, and keeping your colored media organized and well-labeled. I take a lot of ribbing for keeping my pastels in spectrum order and returning them to the box as I work, but if I want it to come out looking reasonably good, then it's a necessity. In digital media it doesn't matter, of course, since you can dial in the desired color numerically.

At 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. I am a colorblind designer. I don't know if you are going to become a fine artist or to become a commercial artist, but if you are planning to become a designer, I would suggest you to close down this blog, or at least taking off any content that could reveal your true identity.

I don't want to sound negative, but I know a 3D animator who was being discriminated after his boss found out he's colorblind, despite the fact that he's been working in the same company for years w/o causing any problems.

As a fine artist, you will have more freedom and your colorblindness could actually be an advantage as you will clearly see something other peoples couldn't see -- isn't that what a good artist is about?

I can't tell you enough of my shock when I found out I am colorblind. I wanted to be an artist since I was a child and the earth seemed shattered when I learned about that. But, look at it from the bright side, if you didn't know about your color vision problem until you took a test, that means your problem isn't too severe. That also means color theory is your best friend.

BTW, check this out:

I hope one day my colorblindness can be cured 'cause I really want to see this world in full color.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Fae said...


Thanks for your blog. I'm a colorblind female artist and designer. I've ALWAYS had issues of making people green when painting. In digital format, at least i can swatches of colors of skin from photos i take of myself and keep in a chart. But, in real painting I've gone the route of using more surrealistic skin colors in a very limited palette, like someone in an environment awash in purple light (which works well for me since I enjoy "fantasy" type art).
Best of luck to you, and hang in there, because little by little you will be able to intellectualize what you need to paint, or mix (say specific amounts of paint - I've used plastic syringes to measure paint in ml.), rather than actually SEE it :)

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Li Gardiner said...

These comments were posted a long time ago, so I am sure that you have overcome your insecurity about being able to see colors. If you were not discouraged, and continued to study art as hard as you studied this problem, you have excelled at your craft by now. The only comment I have for other readers is that the painting above the JPG suffers less form deficient color, than from deficient value. The line work and proportions are excellent, but all the shadows are washed out, to the point where I wonder if the photo of the artwork or the lighting is at fault, and not the hand of the artist. With stronger values, such a slight decrease in red would never be noticed.


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