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When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

Edgar Degas: “I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It´s false, and it is that falsity that constitutes art.”

Colour blindness affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. The term colour-blind can be misleading though, because the majority of people referred to as colour-blind is actually only colour deficient, which means that there are only certain colours that they don’t see.
There are different types of colour blindness, the most common are protanopia (reduced sensitivitiy to red light) and deuteranopia (reduced sensitivity to green light), which are collectively known as red-green blindness. These people have problems distinguishing between reds, greens, browns and oranges. Tritanopia (reduced sensitivity to blue and yellow light) is extremely rare.

A colour-blind person cannot become, for exempe, a pilot, an electrician, a firefighter, a police officer or a railway driver, however there are plenty of colour-blind artists (it is quite probable that even Vincent van Gogh was one of them). I was curious to learn how these artists live and work with this deficiency. Is this different vision an obstacle for them to create what they wish to create or do they maybe develop other abilities or discover advantages, which artists with a normal vision could not have?

I am a person who is quite focused on colour, both in my perception of art and in my own creative process, so it is hard for me to imagine that colour blindness is not restricting an artist´s work. On the other hand, I created my own experience of how the reduction or the absence of colour can help you to focus on other equally important aspects of a piece.
When I started my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich in the jewellery class, I was working with extremely bold and vivid colours. But soon I had to show my work to the class for the first time and some of my fellow students reacted quite negatively to this abundance of colours. I was perplexed and intimidated from these reactions, for me it was the most normal thing in the world to be working with colours. However, I wasn´t able to explain why I wanted to use colour in such a way.
After that, the following experiments resulted in completely white pieces. I ceased using colour almost entirely, mainly because I felt so insecure about it. Even though I was missing the use of colour, I realised how my focus shifted, e.g. towards texture and form. It was only when I discovered the graffiti as a material quite at the end of my studies, when I came back to working with colours. In the meantime though, I had learned a great deal about other issues of my work…

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

In 1962, painter Peter Milton got his eyes tested after having read a review of a show of his. The writer of the article mentioned warm and sort of pinky landscapes, which was quiet astonishing for the artist, as he had never meant to paint the landscapes pinkish after all. The result of these tests were that he was diagnosed with deuteranopia. Milton, who had actually studied under Josef Albers (a sort of  “colour guru” as Milton himself refers to him) had to face the fact that he could not see the whole spectrum of colours and made a radical decision: He abandoned all colours from his work and changed his medium from painting to black and white printing. Peter Milton says: “I don´t miss colour. It helps to have a disability- I use that word, it´s a strong word- but it helps to have a disability, because when you can do anything, which of all the things you can do are you gonna choose? So something has to help you to make a choice.”

Bonnie Auten, who creates hyper-realistic colour pencil drawings, did not perceive her colour blindness as a barrier to work with colours. After the first shock when she got diagnosed (her doctor told her that she was one of the worst female cases he had ever seen…), she discovered that she might even have an advantage to artists with a normal vision. She realised that because of her colour blindness, she pays lots of attention to value, which is in her opinion is equally or even more important to create an exciting composition: “For many artists colours sing to them. They sing so loud they cannot hear the value whispering. So although they may paint or draw a very colourful picture it is somehow flat and does not feel lively. It may be that the values are mostly midtones. They lack darks and lights, or value-change throughout the picture. In this I am far ahead of the game, for I see value first and colour second.“ She states something similar regarding colour temperature, “because the warmth and the values tell the story far better.” You can read Bonnie Auten´s thoughts about her colour-blindness here.

Neil Harbisson is the world´s first cyborg artists. He was born with achromatopsia and sees the world in a greyscale, but he can hear colours through a device, a chip with an antenna, which is connected to his skull. He uses this to enrich his experience of the world and to enhance his senses. Neil Harbisson cannot only hear visible colours, but also colours like infrared and ultraviolet which are beyond the visible spectrum of humans. The extended bodypart enables him also to receive phone calls directly to his scull and was recently upgraded with a Bluetooth implant, which allows him to connect to the internet. Naturally Harbisson is using his ability of hearing colours for his artwork too. In his sound portraits, for exemple, he is listening to the colours of people´s faces and creates sound files from the notes he was hearing. Here is a link to a TED talk with the artist.

I happen to know a colour-blind artist myself and seized the opportunity to ask painter and sculptor Zvi Tolkovsky a few questions about this subject. Zvi Tolkovsky was born in Israel in 1934 and studied art in Israel, Paris and New York. He established a screen printing workshop and a paper workshop at the Bezalel Academy Of Art and Design Jerusalem, where he acted as the head of the fine arts department for several years. Zvi Tolkovsky lived, worked and exhibited in numerous countries. Currently he commutes between Prague and Jerusalem and is still teaching paper classes at Bezalel.

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

Carina: When and how did you find out that you are colour-blind?

Zvi: I think it was as I was taking some tests when I was applying to join the Airforce. They have a special test for colour blindness and that is when they told me that I am colour blind.

Carina: Which kind of colour blindness do you have and how would you describe your vision of colours?

Zvi: The blindness is for the green- brown- reds spectrum. I don’t think that I see differently than other people. I manage well in this world and I have no problem in painting. I know that I couldn’t be an electrician, I cannot connect colour with function. If I do not have to define colours I have no problem.
I do not differentiate between the colours, but I feel them. It works like food on the plate, there is something that attracts you and something that puts you off. There are colours that are harmonious, they seem right for what I want and where I want it. If I hold three tubes indicating red, brown and green, I see difference between them but I cannot give it a name. I make the choice according to if or not it attracts me. Some greens may seem to me dark rich gray, very attractive. I think I work with red but then I am told it is brown. I can tell warm colours from cold colours.
I enjoy very much to confront colours on the canvas without having to identify them. It is more about pleasure. I choose colours on a spontaneous impulse guided by enjoyment. There is no intension. It is a game of the pleasure, of putting the material paint on the canvas and of playing with that.

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potentialWhen artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

Carina: Do you (or did you) have the feeling that the colour blindness is an obstacle or that it is an advantage for you as an artist?

Zvi: Definitely an advantage. I work with considerations that are intuitive. I do not have to deal with conventions. No restrictions.

Carina: Do you care about the fact that the majority of people sees your pieces differently than you do?

Zvi: No not at all, it is obvious to me that the others see what I see.

Carina: Thank you!

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

When artists face colour-blindness- A hindrance to potential

1 Photo: Carina Shoshtary
2 Carina Shoshtary: Untitled, brooch, 2007; Shower sponge, rocaille glass beads, wood glue, paint, silver, stainless steel; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi
3 Zvi Tolkovsky: Night Watch, 2010; Oil on canvas; Photo: Zvi Tolkovsky
4 Zvi Tolkovsky: Kunstraum, 2010; Oil on canvas; Photo: Zvi Tolkovsky
5 Zvi Tolkovsky: Jerusalem Bitch, 2014; Oil on canvas; 50 x 65 cm; Photo: Zvi Tolkovsky
6 Zvi Tolkovsky: Still Life, 2015; Mixed Media; 85 x 35 x 70 cm; Photo: Carina Shoshtary
7 Zvi Tolkovsky: Evolution, 2015; Mixed Media; 150 x 105 x 50 cm; Photo: Carina Shoshtary

Text edit: Hayley Grafflin