Monday, April 14, 2014

On Being a Colorblind Artist, Part 3: Adulthood

For the next ten years, I did not paint.

Even my drawing became sporadic, reduced to the occasional birthday card or half-hearted scribbles on envelopes and Post-it notes.

I threw myself into all sorts of pursuits, some of them creative, some not, but none of them seemed to fit. I traveled widely: Russia, England, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Canada, Uzbekistan. I worked long hours paying off my student loans in coffee shops and bookstores. I tried my hand at writing, film editing and silversmithing. I peddled diamonds and Rolexes. I taught English as a second language. I joined the Peace Corps.

But no matter what I did, something was missing.

In the grander scheme of things, I believe we are all put on this planet for a purpose; and sometimes that purpose isn't clear until we're ready for it. In my case, I had several dark experiences in my past that I had to address first. Yet as I began to battle and overcome these dragons one by one, I found (much to my surprise) that the desire to paint was still there, placed deep in my heart. And not just in line, or form, but in color. Full-on vibrant color.

Of course I could've ignored this unlikely impulse. I could've played it safe and worked in, say, pen and ink. But the thing is, I do see color, just not all of it, and I happen to enjoy it. To restrict myself to just black and white would've been more than a compromise – it would've been an admission of defeat. Whether they admit it or not, most artists create for more than just themselves. They want their efforts to be experienced and shared with others. If I didn't care about mistakes and only painted for myself, my work might be acceptable to me, but it'd be a lesser experience for others.

“Oh, but it would be so interesting to see what you would make!” a lot of well-intentioned people say. “Such-and-such an artist uses wild color schemes and gets away with it.”

What they fail to grasp is this: an artist has to possess an even BETTER sense of color in order to make “wild” color choices harmonize in their work. There has to be an underlying sense of intent. I don't set out to paint trees pink or skies green on purpose. I don't even see them as pink or green. I see them as “brown” and “blue”. Asking a colorblind artist to paint in unnatural colors is like asking a pianist to transpose a concerto on a piano that's missing keys. Sure, it could be done, but it wouldn't be enjoyable. 

  I honestly thought I'd painted the waterlilies green...

So when I felt that I should attempt to paint again, I knew the odds were stacked as high against me as they ever were; yet I'd finally been given the strength to try.

My first challenge was to find some proper instruction. It turns out that, while other colorblind painters certainly do exist, colorblind painters who teach are super rare – and secretive. Just as a dancing instructor or running coach wouldn't openly advertise that they had a limp, a colorblind art instructor wouldn't mention their deficiency, either. So I never found one.

I attended several classes and workshops, but it was a bit crazy-making, both for me and the instructors. At first I thought I could get away with not mentioning my colorblindness, but in the end it always came out. You see, most experienced painters use color by instinct, and that instinct can be difficult to teach to beginners, much less to someone like myself. A typical interaction would go like this:

Instructor: “Okay, so let's just mix up some of this, like so, and....”

Me: “I'm sorry, what were those three colors that you just put together?”

Instructor: “It's not a formula. Your palette doesn't even have to be the same as mine. You just need to get an overall feel for the grass over there.”

Me: (looking up my notes) “Ah, I see now. Ultramarine blue, Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Orange, right?”

Instructor: “Um, yeah. I think that's what I just used. But look, there's a ton of ways you can mix that color. It's not about local color. It constantly changes with the light.”

Me: (Nodding and quickly writing down the pigments, the percentage used, the weather, and the current time of day, etc.) “Of course.”

A failed attempt at a portrait. Fortunately, the model fainted before I could finish it.

If instructors were of limited color help, books were far worse. Each one called for a completely different list of paints, skipped steps, and would often omit the pigment's actual name. Why is this problematic? Because one company's “Hansa Yellow” could be another company's “Transparent Yellow”, “Nickel Azo”, “Arylide Yellow or “Lemon Yellow”. So the actual paint the author used was unknown to me. Was it green-yellow? Orange-yellow? And what does that even mean? According to my eyes, many yellows look identical. Same goes for blues. They might be lighter or darker, but not “warm” or “cool” or “strong” or “dull” as so many describe them. So mixing paints was an exercise in madness and I ended up buying countless tubes of paint in hopes that I'd hit on the right combination.

I was steadfast in my quest, though, and eventually happened on a book that wasn't useless: The Watercolorist's Essential Notebook by Gordon MacKenzie. It was a revelation. For the first time, it was explained to me that it wasn't a crime to use greens straight out of the tube, and that pigment names also had particular number designations that I could look for on the labels. He also described the varying qualities of pigments, listing which ones mixed well with which, and which ones resulted in a dull muddle. Around the same time, I also came across Bruce MacEvoy's personal research project at In this staggeringly comprehensive website I discovered descriptions of nearly every known pigment in the universe, complete with diagrams and scientifically tested descriptions. In fact, this site has been such a boon to my painting process that I often wonder what I'd do if it suddenly went offline.

 Color swatches

Eventually, I began to paint not just with others, but on my own. Ever-so-tentative at first, but as time wore on I became more confident. Each painting I made, I looked things up, made swatches of colors and got brave enough to ask for help. I wrote down what worked and what didn't work. I made a lot of spectacularly bad paintings. In fact, I STILL make a lot of bad paintings...but now I have a better idea of why they went wrong, and they are getting less frequent. In fact, the one thing I've been hearing more and more is, “Colorblind? I never would have guessed!”

Note: This last post ran so long that I had to cut it in half(!) Stay tuned next week for “On Being a Colorblind Artist, part 4: How I Paint.”

1 comment:

Anne Dirkse said...

I'm really loving this series, and find myself strangely envious of your view on the world. I wouldn't say exactly that I didn't know you were colorblind, but more appropriately that I am still surprised, because I really love your use of color. I've often been frustrated by color in art also, but from the opposite perspective. Using color effectively is almost never using all the colors under the rainbow, and learning how to remove the noise and focus on the essential is often difficult. I'm so glad you've found your art again and are pursuing it, and sharing both your view of the world and your path there.

Also, on a side note, there was a really interesting interview I heard on NPR's TED Radio Hour a couple of months ago. I don't know if you caught it, but I was fascinated (the first interview in the link)