Monday, March 31, 2014

On Being a Colorblind Artist, Part One: Childhood

As some of you know, I have a secret.  I'm colorblind.  Not black-and-white, but the red-green sort that's commonly known to affect men, but occasionally shows up in .04% of women.  I could go into the biology behind it, but suffice it to say that my dad is also colorblind and my mom is a carrier of the gene.  If I ever had any sons, they'd all be colorblind by default.

For years, I was convinced that admitting my so-called "disability" to others would make people think less of my art, but now I'm learning that this isn't true -- if anything, it's the opposite!  But like so many things, perceptions are formed early on and can be hard to shake.  Even now I find myself reluctant to mention my colorblindness for fear of being seen as a novelty.  I would much rather be known for my skill or my subject-matter than as, "The Colorblind Woman Artist".

So back to the beginning.  How did I find out that I didn't see color like everyone else? There may have been a few signs here and there, but it wasn't until I went to the eye doctor for prescription glasses at eight years old that I was formally diagnosed.

 Trying on mom's glasses.  Little did I know I'd have my own pair soon.

I remember looking at all these funny cards with spots on them, and being asked to follow a path, or say what shape or number I saw.  Most of them didn't seem to have anything on them but spots, and after about the 5th spotted card or so I suspected it was all some sort of confusing game to make me look silly.   I then remember overhearing that in addition to being nearsighted I was "colorblind" and thinking to myself that this wasn't true, because I certainly could see color!  But grown-ups had all sorts of odd ideas and it wasn't my place to contradict them.

There were some things that I began to wonder about, though.  Like maybe all those "extra" crayons in the 64 crayon box actually weren't spares, as I'd always thought, but distinct colors.  Colors that I couldn't see.

I actually thought that most crayons had "spares" in case a kid lost one.

It didn't seem to matter much, though, because when a school activity called for "green" all I had to do was look for the crayon with a "green" label. (Although I must admit, I harbored a bit of resentment for kids who absentmindedly peeled them off.) Most markers and watercolor sets had labels, too.  I rarely if ever mixed any colors, and had an interesting predilection for brownish-orange or blue:


I also apparently had a predilection for adding flying "M"s in my work

Another trick I learned was that if I didn't know what color to paint something, I could either show it in shadowed silhouette, as seen above...or else do the entire painting using a single shade, as seen in this ambitious piece:

Even though I enjoyed painting, much of what I did at this point was still in pen or pencil, as I felt I had the most control over what I was doing.  That said, I didn't worry too much about color, and had just about gotten used to the fact that I didn't see it perhaps as well as everyone else.  So what if I couldn't tell the difference between two shades of pink? So what if I accidentally wore mismatched socks?

Then I became a teenager and....everything changed.



Sarah Melling said...

Absolutely fascinating, Laura. I can't wait for the rest of the story!

Anne Dirkse said...

Wow, Laura, I don't recall if I never knew this or just forgot since it's impossible to see from your art. I'm really looking forward to hearing the rest of the story; it is a subject that has fascinated me for years because really the way we perceive the world is so intensely personal and unique to us. I started wondering about it when I first read the theory that Van Gogh had some "defect" in his vision, which people speculated variously was the result of quinine, VD, colorblindness, licking paint off of brushes, absinthe, etc.; It was only then that I realized that there are so many variations of color blindness, and that it can also be partial, and that our color vision can be altered by so many things.

While I can pass a color test, I had poor vision from an early age and would guess that it probably had more to do with my bookishness and lack of aptitude for sports from an early age. It became a sort of crisis of identity for me when I had LASIK, and could no longer go to that blurry place. It turns out that myopia was a way of seeing that I lost, and while I can't say I'd trade being able to see the stars out of my window as I fall asleep for it, I often miss the blurry place, where shadows and color and light danced so differently.

We are all colorblind if you take the insect's view of things. We each see uniquely in so many ways. I really enjoyed your post and especially your early art. My father is also red-green colorblind and has a tremendous aptitude for art that color always discouraged him from. The nuns at his school used to smack him with a ruler for painting the tree trunks green and the leaves brown. I've always thought it was a shame, and I'm glad that you haven't let it stop your incredible talent.

Also, just read your post about the gallery in Loveland. Will you let me know when you are down there next and how you like the group? It is a quick walk from our new house.

Laura G. Young said...

Sarah -- Thankyou! I'll be posting the second part up next Monday. :)

Anne -- Thanks for stopping by. I've been flirting with the idea of LASIK, as my prescription is corrected for -5.75 (R) and -7.00 (L) respectively; it'd be nice to be able to find dropped soap in the shower, etc...That said, I hadn't considered what it would be like to lose that "blurry place", as you so succinctly put it.

And yeah, we are all colorblind compared to insects or other creatures! I often point this out when trying to explain what it's like for me to not see parts of the spectrum. "Imagine you live in a mantis shrimp-like society where everyone can enjoy millions of shades of ultraviolet, but you can't..."

I just have a couple of pieces at the Lincoln right now, but hope to get in more for the big regional show in June. It's a collective gallery (but juried) and I'm still the new kid on the block. Will be sure to let you know when the opening is, as soon as I find out myself. ;)

Kim said...

I've always wondered about this, and your thoughts and experiences on it. I'm glad you're blogging about it! It's fascinating!