Colour Vision Deficiency (CVD) affects about 8% of the male and 0.5% of the female population. So, with these figures, it is natural to assume that there are a good number of practicing, colour blind artists.
Although there are plenty of reports,data and thesis’ that discuss this particular visual impairment there doesn’t seem to be much written about how artists operate under these circumstances.
As a lifelong artist with CVD I’ve always had an interest in colour and how I perceive it. Over time I’ve realised that how I see a colour, or if I’ve used the correct one, isn’t of importance as my pictures are a representation of how I view the world. I was curious how I could sometimes get things right and other times be so wide of the mark. So I started to catalogue the possible reasons behind this.
All my life I’ve been asked to validate my colour blindness with adhoc tests where people would point at things and ask me the colours. “What colour is this pen?”, “Is your jumper red or green?”. It became a standard at school and at times I would deliberately get things wrong as people looked so upset when I was right. If only they’d asked about the turquoise instead of the blue pen, that one would always get me.
Catalogue of colour
So over time we build up a bank of colour associated things, some natural, green grass, blue sky, some are social conventions, red phone boxes, black taxis, while others are personal, a purple badge or an orange mug. Our brain stores these colour things and then when we have a conflict it searches out possible matches to correct our perceptions.
This could partly explain how we sometimes can see the red flowers in a bush or the girl in a crowd wearing the peach dress. The mind cleverly finds the right match through past objects we associate with a certain colour.
Problems with Tone
Tonality is another colour aspect that can help and hinder the CVD viewer. The same colour brightly lit or in deep shade will take on a different hue. So a dark green may be confused with deep red, but if the green is a few tones lighter, the conflict will not arise. It may be difficult to find a red tiled roof in a forest during the summer. However, as the leaves change during different seasons the roof will be more visible as they become paler or darker.
Dusk and dawn are times when colour identification can be tricky. At these times the clues are less obvious, the differences not so pronounced and this is when we have trouble deciding between the choices. Equally, two colours, brightly lit can be troublesome.
Just as we draw conclusions about colours from their environment, our brains can also make connections with shapes and give the known forms a colour code. Objects which have a certain shape, tend to be a particular colour. A leaf, or a plum for example have shades that we would recognise and the brain knows this.
Colour swamping and object context can also affect our chart. By sheer intensity you can have one colour over-powered by its surroundings. For instance a ginger kitten on a luscious green lawn. The massive quantity of green grass will turn the poor kitty green with no problem. Although if you look long enough the brain can change it back to ginger as it knows there are no green cats.
I experienced a similar effect when watching the Dutch football team play. Their kit is an incredibly luminous orange, so much so that it changes the colour of the pitch. Now even I know that grass is not orange.
The brain is a wonderfully, adaptable organ and I think that once it knows we struggle with colours it goes some way to help us get things right.
I don’t believe it cures our colour perception but over time, building up a bank of colour knowledge and a list of known colour objects it can make calculated choices. It’s not always correct and most often not right at all. Although this could explain how occasionally we defy the odds and see the berries in the trees.