Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Being A Colorblind Artist, Part 4: How I Paint

“So how can you paint, if you don't see color?”

There's a lot of misconceptions about being colorblind, and I mean a LOT. Like, I must only see in black and white, or that I'm unable to see any red or green. It turns out that there are many forms and degrees of colorblindness, just as there are many forms and degrees of, say, nearsightedness -- i.e., some people can get by with only glasses, whereas others need a cane to get around. I'm somewhere in the middle. I can see color, but it's waaaay less saturated, to the point where thousands of shades can look exactly the same. It turns out that the term “colorblind” is a misnomer for 99% with the condition, as the vast majority still see some parts of the spectrum – just not with the acuity of normal-sighted people. I've tried explaining that I have CVD (Color Vision Deficiency), which is the term eye specialists use, but this has yet to catch on with the general public; it takes just as long (if not longer) to explain CVD than if I'd simply said, “I'm colorblind.” Because most people know someone who has difficulty with color. Usually a relative, usually a guy; there's a one in ten chance that an American male will be colorblind. And unless he has aspirations to become a military pilot or police officer, he might not even notice it, aside from the fact that he hates shopping for clothing or has trouble reading maps. Because the thing is, you really don't need to see in perfect color to enjoy most activities. Excepting of course a passion to fly fighter jets, identify suspects, diffuse bombs...or mix paints. Fortunately, no one's life is jeopardized by a bad painting (at least, not to my knowledge) so while I could get away with poorly made works, I continually strive for excellence.

Results from an online hue discrimination test that's roughly like the real thing. A score of zero means perfect color vision.  (Click on the link and try it out.)

So how do I do it?

First and foremost, I have to know my pigments inside and out. Since I can't rely 100% on my vision to provide accurate feedback, I have to research what it is that I'm actually putting onto canvas or paper. I can't just eyeball it.

When I was first starting out, I'd amassed at least a hundred tubes of paint from all the different art books I'd read and classes I'd taken. The mixing possibilities were the point where I was paralyzed. How on earth was I to start? If I'd taken the time to make every mix mathematically possible, it would've taken the rest of my life. So I buckled down and decided to choose those that met my requirements. They had to be distinguishable, not fade, be commonly available and -- most importantly -- be harmonious with one another. Because as most aspiring painters soon learn, not every blue and every red combine to make a decent purple. In fact, some blues and reds don't make purple at all! It turns out that paint pigments are made up of tiny particles that can react with one another in ways that the standard color theory wheel completely and utterly fails to predict.

E.g. A color wheel indicated viridian green would go well with the reds on this house. Ha.

So I experimented until I came up with a system that works for me. It's still evolving, but here's my current palette:

Arylide Yellow FGL (PY97) by Da Vinci
New Gamboge (PY 153)*
Quinacridone Gold (PR206, PV19, PY150)
Winsor/Pyrole Red (PR 254)
Perylene Maroon (PR179)
Permanent Rose (PV 19)
Cobalt Violet (PV14) by MameriBlu
Winsor/Dioxazine Violet (PV 23)
French Ultramarine (PB29)
Cobalt Blue (PB28)
Cerulean Blue (PB35)
Perylene Green (PBk31)
Permanent Sap Green (PG 36, PY 110)
Hooker's Green (PG 36, PO 49)
Davy's Gray (PG17, PBk6, PBk19)
English Light Red (PR101, PY43) by Grumbacher
Raw Sienna (PY42, PR101)
Burnt Sienna (PR101)
Burnt Umber (PBr7, PR101, PY42)
Paynes' Gray (PB 15, Pbk 6, PV19)

(*All are Winsor Newton brand Artist's series, unless otherwise noted)

A well-labeled palette is a useful palette

It's a tad unconventional, as I need more than a few convenience colors compared to some. Instead of mixing a handful of primary colors, I “cheat” by using my spectrum of carefully chosen pigments as a base, adding a bit of their opposites to tone them down, or a bit of their neighbors to spice them up.

When my husband's home, or when I'm out painting with artist friends, I'll sometimes ask for their thoughts on a piece as it's developing. However I don't always have this option so I usually consult MacAvoy's wheel, especially in the planning stage:

A colorless color wheel. (Via

I've almost memorized it by now, but sometimes it's good to have a look just in case.

Another sneaky thing I'll do is I'll look at my notes from past workshops and apply another artist's color mix into a pool of my “convenience” paints, if my scene is being painted under similar conditions. That way, I can almost be sure that it'll turn out okay.

Putting it all together

Finally, I take advantage of technology to ensure nothing's out of whack. I'll use the Firefox extension from, or scan in my paintings and tinker with saturation and other filters on my laptop. Recently I've come across a brilliant little app called, “DanKam".  It doesn't help me miraculously see color like a regular person, but it DOES help me detect subtle shades that I've never been able to distinguish before, by swapping them for ones I can see, in real time, via the video screen. It's amazing! Seriously the best $2.99 I've ever spent.

DanKam app: hooray, technology.  (Link:

So there you have it. Despite my struggles, I'm finally doing what I've always felt I was supposed to do.  There's a lot more that I could write about regarding my day-to-day experiences with colorblindness, like how it affects my judgement of other's art or how I find beauty in “drab” subjects, but that might be for a future series. This time around I've tried to focus on my development as a painter; hopefully it's been somewhat insightful. If you have any questions, or are a colorblind artist yourself needing additional resources, feel free to ask in the comments below or email me at I'd love to hear from you. :)


monbaum said...

Really enjoy this series on your color blindness!!! Thanks for sharing :-)

Christian said...

I'll forward the series to a friend of mine, an illustrator who has a red green deficiancy.
He was asking me once for advice and I was pretty helpless.

Thanks for those posts!


Anonymous said...


GFaceART said...

I'm an art teacher…researching colorblindness. Your story has been most informative. Thank you for sharing and looking to learn more.