Monday, 9 July 2012

Thoughts on being color blind

“When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope” Henri Nouwen

Wide Open Spaces 24" x 48"

It began 52 years ago, sitting beside my father, watching him stroke oil to canvas. It was there, that one single Sunday afternoon, I sensed my destiny was to be an artist by following him and my great grandfather before. Watching him cast eye over colors...add brush to canvas...pull the trigger...young nostrils inhaled hard, enveloping and exploring the exciting intoxicating aroma...young eyes filled with captivating wonderment!
My parents moved us to Toronto when I was fourteen. I began my art education by attending a non traditional four year high school art course. What a life changing blessing to have been accepted into this rare special school curriculum. Most schools offer an hour a week of art instruction if one is lucky. Here we had thirty periods a week with five different art instructors daily. We were exposed to the wonders of light, line, shadow, form, lost and found edges, values and textures, contrast and color...
Ah yes...color! 
It was here I learned a secret that would change my life and almost my destiny.

Normal Vision=B...Color Deficient=P or nothing

During my first weeks at the school we were required to take a test for color blindness. I soon discovered that although I saw color, what I observed was significantly different to what others see. Yellows were more intense. A red rose disappeared when placed in front of a green bush. Green and browns were virtually indistinguishable. Blues and purples seemed the same. Pink melded to gray when applied next to any other color, and once laid down completely disappeared. When looking at another’s painting or at nature, although color is observable, it was and is impossible to make a definitive statement as to the colors being observed in any particular area. 
What to do?  Should I quit and do something else with my life? 
Not a chance! 

It was an ingrained passion that wouldn’t be quelled despite this setback.
Art is about communicating by bringing ‘awareness’ of things or ideas in a unique way. It comes to us in many genres. The holy grail however in painting is having a strong sense of color. 
Thus my conundrum! 
I recall painting a mountain landscape, turning it in, only to be told it looked like a slag heap. How then can one achieve the color of a mountain or any subject whatever and not end up with the mud of a slag heap? This is an issue for me that has taken decades to come to some sense of resolution. Most instructors state nonchalantly, just look at the object, mix the color you see and put it down. 
I might be more successful as an artist if I had followed that advice, but I’m also sure my work would be considerably more avant-garde in interpretation...someday I should give it a go and see what happens.
For forty plus years I have made my living as a professional artist, working as a designer, illustrator, owner of a small ad agency/design studio and simultaneously working as a painter.  Through those years, there have been occasions of embarrassment, such as, when in discussions with one of their marketing people, I described the Coca Cola logo as green! This didn’t exactly engender confidence on their part...although I ultimately gained a contract!
Four words jump out as descriptors in how I have been able to overcome, grow and become successful as a painter.
Perseverance, Neutrals, Values and Glazing.
Perseverance, defined in my trusty Thesaurus, as “a steady and continued action or belief, usually over a long time period and especially despite difficulties or setbacks.”
To me, perseverance driven by hope is an excellent metaphor for the act of making art with or without any disability.  The artistic process, if I want success, requires that I put brush to canvas or pencil to paper, virtually daily, over the long haul, deciding that the joy of the journey is worth any setbacks that I may face to achieve my desired goal. 
Second, the word ‘neutrals’ was my antidote for the frustration of color blindness. 
During my quest for gaining ground as a painter, I’ve invested in a myriad of books and magazines, taken numerous seminars and courses looking for some semblance of hope that I too could respond with paint to what I saw and have it come out with a pleasing sophisticated result.
I recall working an entire night during my ‘wildlife period,’ painting the final stage of a mountain lion.  In the morning I proudly displayed my work to my long-suffering wife, only to be informed that all the highlights I had painted on the ends of the fur were yellow green and not the yellow brown I had intended. I describe my wife as ‘long-suffering,’ as that was just one of a never ending set of such occurrences over our nearly forty years of being married that she became the ‘messenger’ of bad news... 
...and we all know what often happens to the messenger! 
Thankfully she continues to help out, but often, and rightfully so, with some trepidation.
It is only in recent years that I’m finding a solution that works for me. The simple wonder of neutrals and semi-neutrals, their values and the multiplicity of color variety found from such a narrow starting point.  The idea that two complimentary colors found on the opposite side of the color wheel, if mixed 50/50 with the addition of a little white become a perfect clean gray. The ‘color’ then in these ‘neutrals’ is found by adding more of the cool color to the mix or vice versa if we want more warmth.  Adding in white or a virtually black dark mix to add value, gives a vast color horizon to the spectrum of possibility without ending up with mud. 
From that point one only has to think about the third word ‘values.’ 
This is the scale of the subtle changes from the lightest light to the darkest dark. If you are looking at a set of grays, they would be described as an achromatic scale, often described in increments of ten percent...easily identified gradients of the scale from light to dark. 
Finally the wonder of glazing. If I get somewhat off track and produce discordant color which is then pointed out to me, it can be rescued and reunified by the layering of a transparent color glaze over the entire piece.
Now let me swing briefly around away from my easel and look at the words perseverance, stamina or maybe move toward the word ‘overcomer.’ Defined as ‘to get the better of in a struggle or conflict, to conquer and defeat to prevail over a disability, or,‘to surmount and overcome one's weaknesses.’
Being color blind isn’t anywhere close to being the end of the world. It is nevertheless somewhat of a challenge if your chosen profession is that of being an artist, a telephone installer, or a myriad other jobs, including selling jewelry or socks. There are many more intense difficulties that people face, but nevertheless this is one that I face and as a result becomes a little metaphor for the idea of struggle and endurance.
Within the context of Christian believers and the framework of our walk with God, we all experience various obstacles. The gifts and talents that we’ve been given, whether looking like neutrals or loud colorful splashes are our unique and special means of reflecting his light, hope and truth to a world in desperate darkness or hopeless nihilism. We will not all be able to glow with vibrant reds or rich purples slashed with brilliant yellow but we can all be effective and beautiful with our own unique offerings, bringing a cool breeze of refreshment to those we connect with. 
It is God’s desire to paint ongoing scenes toward maturity in and through our lives, glazing warmth and light over each discordant aspect, that in turn bring attractive benefit to others and draw attention to his beauty and goodness.
Be yourself are his work of art, made exactly as he intended to reflect His face...
Be content....persevere with the tools at your disposal...remembering when tempted to complain about life’s life with all out intentional passion using those gifted and infused complimentary’s for all they are worth, whether presented as neutrals or full blown color! 
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)
“But godliness with contentment is great gain.” 1 Timothy 6:6 (KJV)

'Deep Waters' 24" X 36"

Copyright 2012, J. Douglas Thompson