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A riot of red: Edgar Degas’s Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) is part of the Making Colour exhibition

In its latest exhibition [2014], the National Gallery examines how generations of painters have created and used colour. But how do people who are “colour-blind” view art?

Visitors to the Making Colour exhibition, which opened in London this week, can feast their eyes on the rich tones of lapis lazuli, vermilion and verdigris.

In the National Gallery’s colour-themed show, the paintings include a blue room containing Claude Monet’s Lavacourt under Snow (1878-81) and – in the red room – Edgar Degas’s Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) from 1896.

But to anyone who has a colour vision deficiency, commonly known as colour blindness, the bold reds that dominate the Degas work may look very different.

The subject of colour blindness is tackled in an interactive part of the exhibition devoted to the science behind colour vision.

Claude Monet’s Lavacourt under Snow (1878-81) is also part of the exhibition

The retina at the back of eye contains light sensors called cones. The three cone types – red, green and blue – are stimulated by different wavelengths of light.

Most colour-blind people have three types of cone, but they are sensitive to a different part of the spectrum.

By Tim Masters – who has first hand experience of colour blindness
The earliest sign that I was colour-blind was, according to my parents, when I drew a picture of Doctor Who’s Tardis – and made it shocking pink.

When I tell people I’m colour-blind some assume I see the world in black and white.

That’s far from the truth. I can see rainbows. I just don’t see them in the same way as most people…

Source: BBC News: How the colour-blind see art with different eyes.

I recently had a conversation with the artist Benjamin Prewitt about red/green colour blindness and since Mr FND has the same, I decided to do a little research, only to discover that it is the most common form.

In our household it has led to some furious discussions about paint colours.  I wanted a muted burnt orange in the drawing-room and picked the closest colour on the paint chart for a tester pot but he came back with something so orange that the red notes made my head spin!

The Colour Blind Awareness site says that although it’s known as red/green colour blindness, it’s not that those affected mix up red and green but that they “mix up all colours which have some red or green as part of the whole colour”. For example, a red/green colour blind person “will confuse a blue and a purple because they can’t ‘see’ the red element of the colour purple”. Apparently, unless the condition is the result of some other problem such as Diabetes or Multiple Sclerosis, the most common reason is an inherited gene from the mother.

“I always knew something was off ,” says Benjamin, “as people would remark how vibrant my work was, or when I would ask if this tan or green fabric matched.”

I’m beginning to understand a little more what it’s like for those affected.

What I haven’t yet disclosed to Benjamin is that I have a big problem with red (he will read it here first!) and very red-based orange — there is a lot of red in his paintings.  If the shade is deep and close to a wine red, I’m attracted to it but otherwise I tend to feel as I did with the orange tester Mr FND bought.

Having said that, I have to confess that some of his red-based paintings that scream at me on the blog look stunning when hung on the wall for an exhibition, as below.


Last year, Benjamin had his eyes checked.  “[I] completely failed the color chart test. The look on the tech’s face was hilarious. The doctor did a more in-depth test with actual light and determined I see a different spectrum of those colors than most. She also told me I have a hyper-acuity, meaning that when I look at things I can focus in far more close than normal, which I guess is why I love texture. I find texture palpable, even being told I really don’t know what it all means in the real world. I just know I feel color and written words and raw emotion [and they] create vivid clear images in my mind. I guess I’m a kook.”

‘Kook’ he certainly is not. Not only do I admire his work, I admire the extraordinary way he copes with early onset Parkinson’s.  Colour blindness is the least of his worries and surely enhances his art.

I feel exactly the same about texture and the chances are that most artists do. His remarks about feeling colour and words prompted me to tell him I have a mild form of Synaesthesia. This condition means that the senses get mixed up. For instance, I see days of the week and months of the year in colour and shape – always the same. Friday might come up in conversation and I instantly see a yellow half-moon. Tuesday is pale grey but I couldn’t begin to describe the shape or pattern, only draw it!  If you’re interested in Synaesthesia, there are a number of books on the subject.  I can’t find the book I read in the late 1980s or early ’90s on my shelves, nor remember its name but it wasn’t until I read it that I realised there was a name for what my mother and I both shared. It was an eye-opener.

By the way, if you want to know what happened to the walls of our flat, the answer is nothing! We couldn’t agree. I painted a swathe in lemon trying to imitate the ragging, rolling, marbling techniques of the late Jocasta Innes but then life interrupted for several years and we didn’t even have the money to slap on some white. Now, because we’re selling, the white paint is going everywhere.

As for what I’m seeing, who knows. I’ve been waiting for a cataract operation for what seems an eternity.

Take care and keep laughing!


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