In its latest exhibition, 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.
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.
Walking around the Making Colour exhibition, I was dazzled by the ultramarine blues and daffodil yellows.
But was that a big patch of green in Degas’s La Coiffure? The sign said it was red, but my eyes said something different.
Apart from a fashion faux pas involving some burgundy trousers, I’ve never found my colour blindness to be much of a problem. It’s never detracted from my enjoyment of art.
Just don’t ask me for sartorial advice – or to repaint a police box.
Joseph Padfield, a conservation scientist at the National Gallery, is one of the experts who devised the interactive show.
It uses cutting edge LED technology to replicate different light conditions that can change the way the brain perceives colour.