A Question of Colour

Tuesday, 31st August 2004
Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

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Recently Roz Stendahl (see link below) asked me if I could 'offer any suggestions on readings or things that you felt were helpful to you in dealing as a visual artist with color blindness.' This was my answer:

Colour Blindness

colour test

I've got a slight red green colour blindness but I think that since schooldays, when it was first recognised in a medical, I've educated my eye and compensated for it. Constable is said to have had a similar condition so I'm in good company.

The pebble-like tests (left, link to full test below) where you're supposed to read a number were the ones that I couldn't manage when I was at school, probably still couldn't now, but after art school I tried another type of test where you had to say which of three colours, shown as spots on a black background was most similar to a single spot shown above them (none were exact matches). I scored 100% at that, which pleased me.

It's hard to believe how monochromatic the 1950s and even the 1960s were here in Britain, with black and white television, magazines and so on. I think I've had far more chance to educate my eye since then.

I see '26' here, a person with a greater degree of red/green colour blindness would see only spots while someone with normal colour vision would see '29'.

Sketchy Vision


I was so pleased when an artist friend said recently, glancing through my sketchbook, that I had a good eye for colour. 'Do you really think so?' I said.

One thing that knowing I have colour blindness gives me qualms about is that I don't think I can use colour as an emotional or symbolic device. This would be like me trying to be an opera singer without perfect pitch. But I'm very happy to sit in a landscape and be as honest as possible trying to capture the colour of a sky, a dead leaf etc. I'm aware of the limitations of photography to perform this function and I think that I can do as well as that.

For the same reason I can't get terribly interested in colour field abstract painting because I have an nagging doubt that I'm probably not seeing what the artist intended me to see. For this reason I've never studied it.

But the straightforward approach to colour - just paint what's there, then there's no excess baggage - fits in well with my approach to drawing too.

Working with colour in Adobe Photoshop

A tree is a tree . . .

Willow Arch, acrylic on canvas, 1996
I used only three primaries - crimson, cadmium yellow pale and ultramarine - plus white when painting this acrylic on canvas. I like to keep things simple!

If I draw at willow I want it to look just like that particular willow, not a generic willow. I really look at it and I think the phrase 'a tree, is a tree, is a tree' would be a fair summary of what I'm trying to do, so I want that extra something, the symbolism and emotional impact, if any, to come from the tree itself with me as a medium through which the tree can express itself.

Symbolic Colour

Symbolic colour - painting the tree red as a metaphor for sacrifice for instance, wouldn't work for me. I'd rather my trees were the colour of lichen, algae, moss and bark and I'm content to let the natural symbolism come through. In fact I probably don't want even that - to make anything a symbol for something else - I think it's more important for the 'is-ness' to come through.

A Watercolour Palette

my watercolour paletteDaler Rowney watercolour boxoxTalking a little less metaphysically, I like to keep my paintbox very simple, the one I usually use holds only 12 colours. I always hold it the same way around; it's got a little handle underneath. This means I'm so familiar with the layout that I can paint even when it's starting to get too dark to see the colours.

I do have one green in my box, useful when you're in a hurry I expect: permanent sap green, but I think my colour improved when I realised that I didn't need Hooker's green, viridian (except for mixing, using small quantities, but I can do without it), bright green and olive green.

I don't need them for what I'm doing but a friend who painted the illustrations to a monograph on amazon parrots (the green ones) included every green she could find in her box, as well as the full range of yellows and blues. Next Page

Related Links

Ishihara Test for Color Blindness

Dot by Roz Stendahl Rozworks, the website of graphic designer, illustrator, writer and teacher Roz Stendahl, includes 'Daily Dots'; drawings of her dog Dottie, an Alaskan Malamute bitch, which she made almost every day between July 1998 and January 2003.

Richard Bell, richard@willowisland.co.uk

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