Saturday, March 24, 2012

Painting myself into a box - Adaptive strategies for the colorblind artist

In my last post on this subject I said that people who are partially colorblind can differ widely in their ability to see color. Those who are only mildly affected may have little if any difficulty as artists. Those of us with more severe colorblindness need adaptive strategies. I'll write about six strategies along with artists who have used them. The strategies are:

1. Embrace your colorblindness and make bold use of color your trademark.
2. Use a restricted palette.
3. Select a discipline where critical color choice is not vital.
4. Use some sort of regimented method for assigning, mixing and applying color.
5. Go to a black and white or monochrome palette.
 6. If color is required, get someone else to do it.


Rees, Spring Afternnon, Bathhurst, 1971
1. Embrace your colorblindness and make bold use of color your trademark. Some people think that prize-winning Australian artist, Lloyd Reese (1895-1988), had problems distinguishing blues and yellows, leading to his distinctive use of color in landscapes, such as in Spring Afternoon, Bathhurst.

I also occasionally wonder if some of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist painters (circa 1880-1910), with their “bold” and “arbitrary” use of color were not necessarily avante garde, but simply color confused. 

Matisse, Madama Matisse, 1905
I could easily give someone a green nose without even realizing it (Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1905). The French painter, Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), especially intrigues me. He had a bold style, as evidenced by paintings such as Landscape with Red Trees
Vlaminck, Landscape w Red Trees, 1907

 However, Vlaminck also demonstrated one of the other adaptive strategies of colorblind artists: 

2. Use a restricted palette. During his Fauvist period Vlaminck painted mainly with primary colors (Tugboat on the Seine), but later in his career used a more subdued palette (Fishing Port).

Vlaminck, Tugboat on the Seine, 1906
Vlaminck, Fishing Port, 1911

Constable, View of the Stour, 1822
It has also been speculated that the English landscape painter, John Constable  (1776-1837), was partially colorblind, and as a consequence, his color palette emphasized yellows and browns, as in his View of the Stour near Dedham. In his art Constable also seemed very sensitive to value (how light or dark something is). While this is not indicative of colorblindness, I often feel that as a colorblind artist, I am more attuned to changes in value than changes in hue.

Manship, Atalanta, 1921
3. Select a discipline where critical color choice is not vital. (Think raku pottery or marble sculpture.)  American Paul Manship was one of the  most famous exponents of Art Deco in the U.S. and one of the nation's premiere sculptors. Early in his art career he studied to be a painter, but after learning he was partially colorblind, he switched to scupture.

Even in painting there are certain genres where color choice is more critical than others. Portraiture might not be your forte. Christopher Smart, a marine artist who happens to be partially colorblind, says on his blog, “Portraits and colorblind artists do not usually mix. Especially if you cannot see red very well. Imagine painting a portrait for a customer only to hear them say ‘Grandma looks the way she did at her funeral. Why is she so pale?’” 

This is not to say the colorblind artist should stay away from portraits or figures. There are successful colorblind painters who produce figurative art (more on that later).

4. Use some sort of regimented method for assigning, mixing and applying color. Years ago I read about an artist who was partially colorblind and successfully painted colored landscapes. He was able to do this by carefully arranging and labeling the colors on his palette. As I recall he also had a thorough understanding of color theory, developed his own personal color wheel and experimented with mixing various colors. During his experimental period, he mixed different color combinations (noting the proportions) and painted hundreds of individual squares of color. After organizing his color squares, he could then use them for color matching (and use the color recipe on the back of the card for color consistency).

Unfortunately, I can’t find my notes on the artist. If I ever do find my notes I’ll include a reference here. I do know of other artists who have used the labeled palette method, though.

Arthur Frost - Shinnecock Hills
Arthur Burdett Frost (1851-1928) was an American illustrator and painter, and was one of the most well- known illustrators from the “Golden Age of American Illustration” (1895-1945). He was also red/green colorblind. Most of his work was in black and white, but he also painted in color. Biographies mention that he was able to paint successfully by carefully putting his colors in a pre-arranged sequence on his palette. (One article I read says that his son arranged his colors on the palette).

Charles Meryon - The Apse of Notre Dame
5. Go to a black and white or monochrome palette. The French printmaker, Charles Meryon (1821-1868), was red/green colorblind. He realized his colorblindness would prevent him from being a successful painter so he turned his attention to etching. He is considered the pre-eminent etcher of 19th century France.

Ethan Diehl - Archie's Leaes
A contemporary colorblind artist who uses a monochrome palette for most of his work is Texas painter, Ethan Diehl. Diehl produces almost photo-realistic paintings using tiny squares of different shades of grey.  

The “Way of the Grey” is also the path for most of my art. During college I was greatly influenced by Japanese art and sumi (black pigment) painting. Henry Bowie (artist, author and Japanese authority), in his book, On the Laws of Japanese Painting, wrote of one noted Japanese painter, Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), who “expressed the wish that he might live long enough to be able to discard color altogether and use “sumi alone for any and all effects in paintings.’”


Kubota Beisen - China Diary
I am also of the opinion that some artist’s use color as a substitute for talent—as an easy trick to differentiate areas in a painting or convey a mood. I think Bowie also mirrors my feeling when he writes that, ‘Colors can cheat the eye but sumi never can; it proclaims the master and exposes the tyro.” 

6. If color is required, get someone else to do it. When I was researching for this post, I was surprised by the number of colorblind artists who choose comic books or graphic novel illustration as their specialty. This is probably due to the division of labor in most comics’ production. Pencillers and inkers provide the line drawings, and if color is required, a separate colorist provides that.

Albert Uderzo - Asterix
Byrne - X-Men
Albert Uderzo (1927- ), the French illustrator of the Asterix comics, is partially colorblind. So is John Lindley Byrne (1950- ), a Canadian American comic book author and artist. Byrne has worked on many classic American superhero comics, such as X-Men and Hellboy.

To finish up,  here are a couple of sites about colorblindness and the arts:
Power to the Gene
Color Academy - relating to John Constable's color palette.

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