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The Case of the Colorblind Painter

Thus reds were seen (or not seen) as black. Yellows and blues, in contrast, were almost white. Further, there was an excessive tonal contrast, with loss of delicate tonal gradations (especially in direct sunlight or harsh artificial light; he made a comparison here with the effects of sodium lighting, which at once removes color and tonal delicacy, and with certain black-and-white films—“like Tri-X pushed for speed”—which produce a harsh, contrasty effect). Objects stood out, if they stood out at all, with inordinate contrast and clarity, like silhouettes. But if the contrast were normal, or low, they might disappear from sight altogether.

Thus, though his brown dog would stand out almost violently in silhouette against a white road, it might get lost to sight when it moved into soft, dappled undergrowth. People’s figures might be visible and recognizable half a mile off—as he himself said in his original letter, and many times later, his vision had become much sharper (“that of an eagle”), but this was the sharpness of extreme contrast or silhouette. Faces, on the other hand, would often be unidentifiable until they were close. This seemed a matter of lost color and tonal contrast, not of a defect in recognition—a visual agnosia—as such.

He found color television especially hard to bear: its images always unpleasant, sometimes unintelligible. For, as he now explained, in distinction to his first letter, his world was not really like black-and-white television or film—it would have been much easier to live with had it been so.

His despair of conveying what the world looked like, and the uselessness of the usual black-and-white analogies, finally drove him, some weeks later, to create an entire “gray room,” a gray universe, in his studio, in which tables, chairs, and an elaborate dinner ready for serving were all painted in a range of grays (see illustration on page 25). The effect of this, in three dimensions and in a different tonal scale from the “black and white” we are all accustomed to, was indeed macabre, and wholly unlike that of a black-and-white photograph. As Mr. I. pointed out,

we accept drawings, films, television—small, flat images in black and white you can look at, or away from, when you want. It is only an image, it is not supposed to be real. But imagine black and white all around you, 360 degrees, all solid and three-dimensional, and there all the time—a total black and white world…. You can’t imagine it: the only way I can express it is to make a complete gray room, with everything in it gray—and you yourselves would have to be painted gray, so you’d be part of the world, not just observing it.

It was, he once said, like living in a world “molded in lead.”

Jonathan I. could no longer bear to go to museums and galleries, or to see colored reproductions of his favorite pictures. This was especially distressing when he knew the artists, when the loss of color was felt as a loss of personal and artistic identity—indeed, this was what he now felt with himself.

Music, curiously, was impaired for him too, because he had previously (like Scriabin and others) had an extremely intense synesthesia, so that different tones had immediately been translated into color, and he experienced all music simultaneously as a rich tumult of inner colors. With the loss of his ability to generate colors, he lost this ability as well—his internal “color-organ” was out of action, and now he heard music with no visual accompaniment; this, for him, was music with its essential chromatic counterpart missing, music now radically impoverished.

He was depressed once by a rainbow, which he saw only as a colorless semicircle in the sky. And he even felt his occasional migraines as “dull”—previously they had involved brilliantly colored geometric hallucinations, but now even these were devoid of all color. He sometimes tried to evoke color by pressing the globes of his eyes, but the flashes and patterns elicited were equally lacking in color. He had often dreamed in vivid color, especially when he dreamed of landscapes and painting; now his dreams were washed-out and pale, or violent and contrasty, lacking both color and delicate tonal gradations.3

A certain mild pleasure came from looking at drawings; he had been a fine draftsman in his earlier years. Could he not go back to drawing again? This thought was slow to occur to him, partly because he had for thirty years been a colorist and an abstractionist, and it only took hold after being suggested repeatedly by others.

His own first impulse was to paint in color, even though he himself knew he could no longer see any colors. He decided, as a first exercise, to paint flowers, taking from his palette what tints seemed “tonally right.” The pictures he did at this time present to normal eyes a confusing welter of colors, and only reveal their sense when seen in black and white. With this he discovered that he might produce pictures that were reasonable (i.e., tonally reasonable) to himself, but unreasonable to anyone with normal color vision.4

Forget color,” his friends said to him, and now he finally said this to himself. In February, then, he put aside all his tints, all his experiments in color; he resolved to start painting in black and white only. The first weeks were a time of agitation, even desperation; he was constantly hoping that he would wake up one fine morning and find the world of color miraculously restored, and constantly fearing that whatever had happened would happen again, this time depriving him of all his sight completely. The fear of blindness haunted him in these first weeks but, creatively transmuted, shaped the first paintings he did, the first “real” paintings, that is, after his color “experiments.” But black-and-white paintings he found he could do, and do very well. He now found his only solace working in the studio, and he worked fifteen, even eighteen hours a day. This meant for him a kind of artistic survival: “I felt if I couldn’t go on painting,” he said later, “I wouldn’t want to go on at all.”

In his studio, in contrast to the “real” world, he could exercise at least some power. Outside, in daily life, he was a patient, passively enduring an all-pervasive deprivation. Yet there was an obverse even to the deprivation, which hit him about three weeks after the onset of his achromatopsia. This was seeing the sunrise one morning, the blazing reds all turned into black: “The sun rose like a bomb, like some enormous nuclear explosion,” he said later. “Had anyone seen a sunrise like this before?”

His first black-and-white paintings, done in February and March, gave a feeling of violent forces—rage, fear, despair, excitement—but these were held in control, attesting to the powers of artistry and sanity that could expose, and yet contain, such intensity of feeling. Thus, in these two months, he produced dozens of powerful paintings, marked by a singular style, a character he had never shown before. In these paintings, done at a time of acute and anguished feeling, when the sense of a shattered world was fierce, there was an extraordinary shattered, kaleidoscopic surface, with many abstract shapes suggestive of faces—averted, shadowed, sorrowing, raging—and dismembered body parts, faceted and held in countless frames and boxes (see illustration this page). They had, compared to his previous work, a labyrinthine complexity, and an obsessed, haunted quality—they seemed to exhibit, in symbolic form, the predicament he was in.

Starting in May—it was fascinating to watch—he moved from these powerful but rather terrifying and alien paintings toward themes, living themes, he had not touched in thirty years, back to representational paintings of dancers and race-horses. These paintings, even though still in black and white, were full of movement, vitality, and sensuousness; and they went with a change in his personal life—a lessening of his withdrawal and the beginnings of a renewed social and sexual life, a lessening of his fears and depression and a turning back to life.

At this time too he turned to sculpture, which he had never done before. One felt he was now turning to all the visual modes that still remained to him—form, contour, movement, depth—and exploring them with an intensity that was, in a sense, new for him. He also started painting portraits, although he found that here he could not work from life, but only from a black-and-white photograph, fortified by his knowledge of and feeling for each subject. Life was tolerable only in the studio, for here he could reconceive the world in powerful, stark forms. But outside, in real life, he found the world alien, empty, dead, and gray.

3.

This was the story we got from Jonathan I.—a story of an abrupt and total breakdown of his color vision, and his attempts to live in a black-and-white world; a story incompatible with any innate or degenerative problem with the eyes, but indicative of a sudden mishap in those parts of the brain needed for the inner representation, the seeing, of colors. Besides this catastrophic breakdown in the cerebral “construction” of color, he had a transient breakdown in the ability to construe letters, and perhaps, in a slight form, and not even known to him, breakdown in other “constructive” functions of “visual” parts of the brain—parts responsible for the perception of movement, depth, contrast, or form. His account pointed to such breakdowns, but to define them precisely we needed tests of various sorts. Some of these tests would be quite informal, making use of everyday objects or pictures, whatever came to hand.

We first asked Jonathan I. about a shelf of notebooks—blue, red, and black—by the desk. He instantly picked out the blue ones (a bright medium blue to normal eyes)—“they’re pale”; the red and the black were indistinguishable—both, for him, were “dead black.”

Presented with a magazine photograph containing a complex, predominantly red, multiple exposure, showing dozens of figures—some red-lit, some white-lit—he missed all the red-lit figures and faces, and saw only darkness with occasional hands and half-faces. He saw one face, of which half was illuminated crimson and half was white, as a face half blocked by an opaque pillar in front of it. A black-and-white photocopy of this photograph produced a picture very similar to what Mr. I. was apparently seeing.

When we gave him a large mass of yarns, containing thirty-three separate colors, and asked him to sort these, he said he couldn’t sort them by color, but only by gray-scale tonal values. He then, with extraordinary rapidity and ease, separated the yarns into four strange, chromatically random piles, which he characterized as 0–25 percent, 25–50 percent, 50–75 percent, and 75–100 percent on the gray-tone scale. (Though nothing looked to him purely white, and even white yarn looked slightly “dingy” or “dirty.”)

  1. 3

    Only one sense could give him any real pleasure at this time, and this was the sense of smell. Mr. I. had always had a most acute, erotically and aesthetically charged sense of smell—indeed, he ran a small perfume business on the side, compounding his own scents. As the pleasures of seeing, and almost everything else, were lost, the pleasures of smell were heightened, or so it seemed to him, and formed the only pleasure—the only intense pleasure—in the first grim weeks after his accident.

  2. 4

    An instructive corollary or converse to this phenomenon was made use of by the military in World War II, when those with severe red-green or other forms of colorblindness were pressed into service as bombardiers, etc., in view of their ability to “see through” colored camouflage, and not be distracted by what would be, to the normally sighted, a confusing and deceiving configuration of colors.

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