How To Be a Colorblind Artist (I’ll Show You How I do It)

How to be an artist when you are colorblind image header. landscape paintings and a pencil drawing of a kitten

I’m a professional artist and yet, like 1 in 12 of the male population I am colorblind. So how have I managed to find a way of making a living as a colorblind artist?

Colorblind artists learn to know color without being able to reliably see color. They use color theory and general knowledge to make a calculated guess at the real color they are attempting to identify. Most artists will label every color to avoid making mistakes and ask for help when a problem occurs.

Colorblindness is an obstacle to be overcome but not a barrier for a life in art. I’m living proof of that and I’m not alone. This post covers how I did it.

What Do Colorblind Artists See Differently?

The most common form of color deficiency involves red and green and people are affected to different degrees, from mild, to moderate, and severe.

In general, they can’t easily distinguish between some reds and some greens. Red doesn’t stand out and hit the eye. In my case, I can’t see red blossom on a tree until I get up close and can make out the form. Red doesn’t ‘POP’.

Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

But it’s not confined to pure reds and greens. All colors are made up of 3 primaries and any color with a bias towards red will confuse a colorblind person too. Purples are a problem because they are a mixture of blue and red. Colorblind people will see most purples as blue.

Pink is a problem. I have never really seen the pink in a sunset. It was only when it was pointed out that I never painted pink in my evening skies that I realized how important it was. I see blue/grey.

Do Colorblind Artists Only See in Black and White?

I see a beautiful world full of color. The big difference, for me, is I can’t see the full spectrum of colors.

I like to describe it like this. Imagine a long bar of all the reds in the spectrum. I can’t see all those reds. There are random gaps all along that line that I can’t see. I don’t where they are but my brain will not leave a blank space.

I will see a substitute color as a near match. The problem for me is I don’t know what has been switched and where, so I can never trust my eyes. I might be looking at the same color as you or I might not.

It’s at this point that people start pointing at things and asking me the color I see. Kids especially like to ask me ‘What color’s the grass?’

That’s where what I know overrides what I see. I know that certain things in life are certain colors. I can’t un-see that. So I can register some things by context alone. If I saw that grass color elsewhere I might get confused.

I have a favorite fleece that turns out to be grass green and for years I thought it was yellow ochre.

How Can A Colorblind Artist Paint?

The problem artists have is mixing color. You can’t guarantee that mixing your blue and yellow will always make green.

So what’s the answer?

Firstly you can limit your palette. If the range of colors is extremely limited you are unlikely to make grave errors and you won’t have any problems with harmony.

Try the Zorn Palette

  • Yellow ochre,
  • Cadmium Red,
  • Ivory black,
  • Titanium White.

You can also try painting with only the primary colors + black and white.

  • Magenta = Quinacridone Red
  • Yellow = Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Cyan = Phthalocyanine Blue

By using the purist pigments you can rely more on color theory when you are mixing colors.

The other way, and my medium of choice when I taught myself to paint, is to use pastels.

Further Reading: Can Anyone Learn to Draw? 5 Great Tips to Get You Started

Pastels are perfect for a colorblind artist. They have every color you could want pre-mixed in a clearly labeled stick of pigment.

I organized all the colors into separate trays of greens, brown, and reds etc to make life easy and, with help, removed all the unnatural synthetic greens you don’t see in nature.

Along with my soft pastels (Rowney) I used Carb-Othello hard pastel pencils for the finer details. I shaved a slice off each end and wrote the color on each one.

I used a tinted pastel paper, usually Canson Mi-Tientes (tint 55), a mid-grey with a pleasing tooth. This ensured that the painting retained a good color harmony.

I learned that different colors are warm and cool and used the knowledge to ‘break’ the rules. I knew, for instance, that I could add a touch of green into shadow, even on a face, to make the area recede and it would work.

Likewise I could dot a few dabs of red in a landscape and a dull field would come alive. It was all done with theory.

Do You Draw Because You’re a Colorblind Artist?

I could always draw. Right from an early age, I was complimented for my drawing skills. In that sense, I can’t say that I draw only because I’m colorblind but it certainly plays a part now.

When I first started to paint I didn’t see being colorblind anything more than a nuisense I had to live with. It didn’t stop me or hold me back significantly.

Photo-realistic framed drawing of a Nile crocodile
‘Monster Croc’ by Kevin Hayler

It was only when I decided to work in front of the public that I lost my confidence. I didn’t want to make errors in front of people. That hadn’t been an issue before. I’d just correct things later.

I printed my pencil drawings, not because I preferred to draw, but because they were a quarter of the price to print. I had no intention of specializing in graphite. It was supposed to be a temporary thing until I had the cash to print some colorwork.

Further Reading: How to Start Drawing Wildlife and Make Life Happier

The problem I had was having enough time (and finding the space) to paint. I could sell at my market stand all day or I could paint. I found it hard to do both. I could, however, draw while I was at work. All I needed were a few pencils and paper.

Drawing simply took over.

Are There Any Advantages to Being a ColorBlind Artist?

There’s at least one.

Apparently, colorblind people have a greater tonal range. I can see more tone than normally sighted people in theory, and that might explain why I draw the way I do.

Back in the war, colorblind people were used to examine black and white reconnaissance photos. They could see far more details hidden in the photographs.

I remember one kid at school, who could also draw well, asking me how I could see so much more than he could, maybe this was the reason.

So we should feel blessed in that sense.

Can Colorblindness Be Cured?

Not as yet but it’s not so far away. Colorblindness is a genetic condition inherited mostly by men through the female line. I got mine from my Grandfather on my Mothers side.

But things may be about to change.

Experiments on monkeys using gene therapy have had positive results. Research is ongoing to see it may be possible to correct colorblindness in people with a single injection.

Corrective lenses are also worth a mention. You may have seen the videos online of colorblind people trying Enchroma glasses for the first time. It’s intriguing. Everyone reacts with such amazement.

They act by filtering light to increase the contrast between reds and greens. They look and act like sunglasses. They don’t ‘correct’ the color as such. They change it.

They seem to saturate the eye with more vivid colors so distinguishing between colors is easier but I’m not sure if it will help with painting or not. And then there is the price. They are super expensive.

I looked online and according to a study undertaken by the University of Granada there was no demonstrable difference between Enchroma glasses and far cheaper shooting glasses. They both act as filters.

For most colorblind users, the red lens will help to enhance red and greens. Forums indicate vermilion as a favorite tint, but it will depend on your level of color deficiency. Some people will need darker lenses, and others lighter.

Glasses can be regarded as an aid and in that spirit, it is worth noting a couple of online tools that can help too.

Anyone who needs to know a color on a computer screen will know how frustrating it is. You use a color-picker and it gives you some code numbers that are no help at all. Well, I’ve found a couple of tools which help because they give you color names.

Colorblind Assistant is a lightweight 1MB download compatible with windows that gives you both the RGB/HEX color codes AND a usable reference name. I love it because it launches as an unobtrusive pop-up as you need it. All you have to do is hover the mouse over an image and there you have a color name and most of them are described in plain English.

It would be nice to have the CMYK code too but that’s nit-picking. The initials stand for Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and ‘K’ is Black. It helps because you can see the color balance clearly. It’s like having a mixing formula. If there is a lot of blue the ‘C’ number (cyan) will be higher, and so on.

If you are painting from a reference photo this software is a Godsend.

Color Name and Hue from colblindor.com has another useful tool. It’s an online tool that gives you a name for the color and beneath the hue description will place it within a color category. For example, you can pick a color called ‘watercourse’ which doesn’t help much, but the hue is described as ‘green’ which does.

Conclusion

Colorblindness may seem trivial to some but it does impact your life and there really isn’t enough information out there to help. That’s why I wrote this article.

Being colorblind is a bloody nuisance. It hasn’t stopped me from being an artist but it has governed what I do and how I do it. If you are in a similar situation I hope this post has given you some encouragement.

You really can be a colorblind artist.


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How to be an artist when you are colorblind. A pinterest image. A drawing of a panda and a landscape painting