Wednesday, September 21, 2005

How is colorblindness tested?

My first color vision test ever, I think, was an article in Popular Science that my dad thrust in front of me. I was 7 or 8, and I had just commented about the orange-ness of the grass. By that point I had already made skies purple in coloring books, but this magazine confirmed it for my dad.

My next test, administered by my opthalmologist a few years later, consisted of his pointing to the woven pattern on his office wallpaper and asking me to identify a strand or two of color. "Red-green colorblind," he said.

I've since failed a number color plate tests in books, on Web sites, in science museums, but I haven't really been tested as an adult, and I've felt like I've been missing some important self-knowledge--especially now that I'm in art school.

So a month ago I asked my opthalmologist, who handed me a booklet of Ishihara plates (circles made up of colored dots, some of which form letters, numbers or curved lines from one edge to the other). Some numbers and lines were obvious, others nearly invisible. I stared at some plates, certain I could figure out the path of dots if I could just have a moment alone with them. But my doctor grew impatient; she started turning the pages for me. Her professional opinion: "You're colorblind."

"Can you be more specific?" I asked.

"You'll have to come in again for a more in-depth evaluation."

That in-depth evaluation, the Farnsworth Dichotomous something-or-other, took place today. Here's how it works: in a long narrow box lies a row of 15 pastel-colored pegs (like little plastic game pieces). The first peg is immobile; your task is to choose the peg among the others that most closely matches it and place that one second. Then you choose the peg that most closely resembles the second, and place it third.

A lab technician administered the test--rather unscientifically. First of all, she casually allowed me to see the pegs before she mixed them up. What I saw was a spectrum of colors from bluish-purplish something on one end to yellowish-orangish-greenish something in the middle to bluish-purplish something on the other end. I averted my eyes and tried to ignore what I'd seen. She put a patch over my right eye, scrambled the pegs and handed the box back to me.

Peg #1 looked blue to me. Or purple. Several others looked similar, in value if not in hue, so I placed those next. After I had ordered 4 or 5 pegs, the test administrator said, "You understand what you're supposed to do, right? You choose the one that looks most like the first one and place it second."

Clearly I was bombing. My arrangement looked different from what I had seen minutes earlier, but I thought I should ignore that and just try to follow the directions. At some point I reached what I would call the "from here on out, one guess is as good as another" moment, and I handed the box back to her.

She flipped the pegs over and started copying numbers down on a form. "You've got some real color problems," she said with a laugh. I asked her how often she administers the test.

"Oh, it goes in waves," she said. "We always get the guys from the police academy. That's awful. They go through the whole training, and then they have to take this test. If they fail it, they can't graduate. I've seen men in tears."

She moved my patch to the other eye and rescrambled the pegs. "Actually," she said, "you've pretty well scrambled them up yourself!"

This time I decided to use my head. The yellowish ones go in the middle, I thought, and the darker ones look either blue or reddish. They must go from cool to warm. It must go from blues to greens to yellows to oranges to reds, like a counter-clockwise trip around the color wheel. I took my time, comparing pegs, looking for hints of warmth and coolness.

"You did much better this time," she said. "If you want, you can do the first eye over again."

So I did, following the same strategy.

"Wow," she said. "I've never seen so much improvement." My score was nearly perfect with the left eye the second time around.

She asked me which results I wanted her to submit to her director for the formal report. "Do you want the results to be better or worse?" she asked, thinking I might need the poor results to get some accommodations at school. "Whichever is more accurate," I answered.

But I'm not really sure which would be more accurate. Obviously her feedback helped me, but it didn't change my color vision--it just changed my understanding of what I was supposed to do. We decided to submit the first try, since the resulting report would probably be more interesting.

In any case, the results suggest that I have this problem, to lesser or greater degree:

PROTAN (red, blue green)

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means you confuse red, blue and green. Or red and blue-green." So she didn't know.

"I think I might be an anomolous trichomat," I said. She gave me a blank look. "This form says dichotomous, but isn't that also a type of color blindness?" I asked. "Anomolous trichomat?"

"Could be," she said.

OK, so was that a waste of time? In the hands of a less clueless technician, would my results have been different? Will the report tell me something I don't already know, something that can help me negotiate expectations with my art teachers?

We'll see--it should arrive in the mail in a week.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A case study

The above link is a page from Clinical and Experimental Optometry, an online medical journal, which features an abstract of a case study titled, "An artist with extreme deuteranomaly." At the bottom of that page is a link to download the complete text of the case study as a PDF document.

The case study offers some historical information about colorblind artists and then describes one oil painter's color deficiency and his way of coping with it (in a nutshell, he limits his pallet). The study refers to a few different colorblindness tests that provide for a very specific diagnosis and ends with a funny statistic:

In a study of high school boys it was found that the colorblind kids fared worse than their normal-vision peers in every academic subject but one: art.

I have one colorblind relative, my Great Uncle Bob. I always felt a special bond to him because of our little embarrassing disability (and he used to share magic tricks with me). One time he said, "It's really not a problem at all--just don't become an artist." Hmm... I'd like to show him this study.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

How do you use color theory to make decisions?

A number of you in your comments say that color theory is crucial to making decisions and avoiding mistakes. Would you be able/willing to give specific examples of your thinking?

(No need to explain color theory--let's assume a basic knowledge of the color wheel, complements, common color schemes, muting, etc., and beginners like me can ask for clarification if we need it.)

It would help me to see how one specifically makes use of theory to work around his color vision problems.

Also, if there are particular books, Web sites or other resources you've found useful on this topic, please recommend!

How do you use Color Quest?

Color Quest is a shareware utility for Mac users (see link to "Tool for Mac Users" at right) that names the color of any pixel you point to onscreen. My initial excitement about finding the program was tempered by the following:

1) the menus are mostly in Japanese,

2) the names of colors--"deep red," "dull yellowish green," etc.--aren't clear to me, and

3) it can misidentify colors--brown as "dark orange," which makes sense, but also, on one occasion, a forest green as "dark yellow."

To help solve the foreign menu issue, here is a translation of the menu items, thanks to a Japanese friend:

Across the top, the menus are: FILE, EDIT, TOOL and MODE.

Under FILE, the options are: CLOSE, PAUSE, HIDE GUIDE and GUIDE COLOR.

Under EDIT, the options are: COPY, PASTE, SELECT ALL, COPY COLOR NAME, COPY IMAGE and SETUP... (which offers the same choices as the MODE menu).


Under MODE, the options are: NORMAL, LOUPE, FLOATING and MINIMIZE.

The MODE options control the appearance of the Color Quest window; the options in other menus are unclear to me, so helpful comments (or a link to online English documentation) would be appreciated!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

How do colorblind artists avoid making mistakes?

Here's the big question. My sense, from a few conversations and emails, is that colorblind artists do one or more of the following:

1) Work in black and white or monochromatic color schemes. Can an artist or illustrator make a career of this?

2) Limit their pallet to colors they can distinguish.

3) Ask other people (particularly wives) if anything looks off.

4) Use color theory or a set of basic guidelines to make reasonable choices. Here's a place I could really use input from experienced artists. Once in a while my teacher drops some general tip ("The shadow on the underside of the nose is typically warm, because it's receiving reflected light." or "It's better to err on the side of making shadows too warm on the figure to avoid making your subject look dead.")--I collect those tips like like pearls, but they seem to come randomly. It would be helpful to compile a list.

5) Use software that allows them to identify or choose colors more easily. I've posted links to color identifiers for Macs and PC's, but the Mac one (Color Quest) is mostly in Japanese and isn't always accurate (according to my normal-vision friends). It ID's colors in English, but the names aren't clear ("dull red", "deep purplish gray"). Also, part of the problem is that it identifies one pixel at a time, and neighboring pixels may be different.

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.