Blind color, color blind

Color which, like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power…
Paul Gauguin

During the course of my long career in the classroom, I taught several students who were color blind. This always provided an extra challenge during our painting units as regular color theory lessons, with the various exercises on mixing and blending, became quite complicated. Compensating, in order that these students could benefit along with everyone else, made for challenging unit planning.

There was one young man, I recall, in particular, many years ago, who was busy painting a lovely landscape. He was so excited, as he progressed along, that he came running to me with painting in hand asking for my approval. “Look, look, Mrs. Cook–what do you think?” he asked as he proudly showed me his painting.

I noticed how brown the grass was as I could actually see good and well that he was looking at very green grass. I told him that things appeared to be ‘so far so good’ but that he may want to add a touch more green to the grass (we were working on color theory and realistic color combinations). After a bit longer, the same young man came running back, once again with painting in tow, “What about now?” he triumphantly asks.

This time the grass was a heavy sea of brunt umber. “Hummmm” I silently wondered. I then asked him to show me the bottle from which he was getting his “green” paint. He hands me a bottle of burnt umber paint… “see, dark green” he explains.

Ahhh—I immediately asked if he’s ever been told that he may be color blind–of which he replied “no.” I grab a green bottle of paint and red bottle of paint asking what he sees. Shades of yellow browns he tells me. A note goes home letting his mom know of my suspicion and that she may want to have it checked out professionally.

It is not uncommon for males to be color blind with green and red being the prominent colors to “suffer”—it’s a lovely lesson on the rods and cones of the eye as well as chromosomes–all of which I will leave to the experts to explain.

Years later, in one of the advanced painting classes, I had a young woman come to me the first day of class explaining that she was completely color blind–that she only saw shades of gray. Talk about a challenge. Here we were in an upper level painting class and she tells me she can only denote shades of grey. Wow. I worried about how effective I could be and what I could offer her in order to make the subject matter relevant and meaningful.

I will say however, as we were working with the concept of texture, light and color, while studying Van Gogh, this young woman produced one on the nicest oil pastel drawings based on a self portrait of Van Gogh that I had ever seen. She took a box of multi colored oil pastels, colors that she saw as only black white and various shades of grey, and proceeded to produce a most vibrant textual image–her take on Van Gogh’s use of color. It was a piece I know Vincent would have loved.

I recall all of this as we, in the northern hemisphere, enter the time of year that is most often void of color. Our time of winter grey skies, dull brown yards, leafless trees of varying tones of grey and brown sticks. A time of monotone shades of shadows and shapes.

Yet just when all appears the same lifeless dull tone, as we mindlessly muddle about bundled and wrapped up like mummies on autopilot, there will be a startling burst of color which punctuates the endless emptiness of the void known as winter. Be it a male cardinal hopping about on the snow, holly berries glistening under a fresh coat of ice—it is as if we are momentarily blinded as our eyes must adjust. We squint almost as if in pain, blinded temporarily by the intensity of which we no longer are accustomed.

These small treats and teases of color offer not only visual interest in a barren landscape but they more importantly offer hope; a sort of life saver in an endless sea of emptiness.

Now don’t get me wrong— I certainly do believe beauty is found in winter–as indeed winter has a crisp, pristine clean, loveliness. However, there can be a bit of a white and grey overload—one that can lead to a dulling of the visual senses.

So as we all prepare to hunker down against the raw wet days of white and grey which lay ahead, be mindful that just when we think life is lacking the fresh beauty of flowers and the emerald shades of succulent leaves, Mother Nature throws us a small treat, hoping to tide us over a bit longer to those brighter more colorful days ahead.