Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Red Buds In The Sunlight

I did the above painting a little while ago.  I wanted to show a very common sight around these parts: sap buckets hanging from lovely maple trees.  I painted the buds of the tree a nice happy red-- not because I saw them that way, but because my lovely Ellen told me that maple buds are red.  I've actually never observed red buds because I'm color blind.

Regular readers of Maine-ly Painting (and you know who you are, and yeah we get together to make fun of you who don't) know that I have never kept secret the little matter of my being color-blind.  I never really give it much thought, either.  Oh sure, sometimes I might wonder what it would be like to have full color vision, but I also wonder on occasion what it might be like to be taller, or maybe have some talent...  So it's never really seemed like that big a deal to me.  However, recently I have been stumbling upon some news items about some possible cures or treatments for color-blindness.

I read one that is touted as a cure for color-blindness is to have DNA, genes and what-have-you surgically inserted into the eye using a large, long and extremely sharp needle.

I think I'll pass...

The next day I read James Gurney's blog post about sun-glasses that help the color-blind.  I have to say, that one intrigued me.  I did a lot of reading about them and how they work, but I will leave it up to the manufacturer, EnChroma to explain.  I recently got a pair.  Of sunglasses, that is.

First off though, let me talk a bit about being color blind.

Yes, I can see color.  But what color I see is usually a different shade than what you may see.  As we all know, white light is a combination of three colors:  Blue, Red and Yellow.  Our eyes take white light and using things called cones, receptors, catalytic converters and nerve endings, (it's complicated...) break that white light into those primary colors.  Our brains then take those colors and transform them into objects.  ("I could tell that was Macaroni and cheese by its orange color!") As a By-The-Way, what color an object is comes as the result of what  color, or colors of light it doesn't absorb.  For instance, the molecules and elements that comprise our atmosphere absorb a lot of red and yellow, so what shines into our eyes is blue light.  Grass will absorb a lot of red, so blue and yellow come through and combine to make green.  The paint used on STOP signs absorb blue and yellow, therefore we see red.  And on and on for everything under the sun.

The cones in my eye over-emphasize the blue spectrum of light.  A couple of reasons I know this are because when I step out from a very dark place into an extremely bright sunny one all I see for about ten to twenty seconds is blue.  Blue grass, blue trees, blue dirt-- it's very disconcerting, to say the least.  Eventually, color will start to seep in as my eyes become accustomed to the light.  Another way I know about red being missing from my sight is when I have trouble mixing a color, I noticed that if I add a touch of red-- even when I don't see it in the color I'm trying to paint-- it will work.  So, as I said, I see color, but if you lower the red quotient a skosh, and up the blue a tad, you will get an idea of what I see.

How does this affect the way I paint?  And how can I paint at all, you ask?  Well, I get around the color thing in a couple of ways.

When people are kind enough to compliment me on my painting, I often am told that I "paint light so well!"  Thank you!  What I think they really mean is that my values appear to be true enough to make one think I've depicted a bright sunny day.  And make no mistake, I work very hard on getting my values as accurate as I can.  It goes with my painting philosophy that Values and Color Temperature are more important than just color.  If I can get those values and temperatures right, then usually I can get away with using some wonky color.  Folks will think I meant to do that-- Artistic Principle and all...

Another way of working around my color vision is a bit more problematic.  I call it Paint-By-Theory.  If I know what the local color of an object is, even if I don't exactly see it that way, (Oh, that's pink and not grey?) then I can theorize what color the shadows and highlights may be.  You know-- warm light, cool shadows kind of thing.  The problem is that I'm using guess work and not observation to determine color.  Which leads me back to my maple tree painting.

Since I have never observed red buds on a tree, if Ellen hadn't told me, I would have used some indeterminate dark color to paint them-- because that's what I see.  Yeah, the values would be right, but the color would be boring.  So after learning about those color-blind sunglasses and reading up on how effective they may be, I thought I'd try them.

The first morning I had them I went outside and looked around.  In short order I noticed how vibrant the colors are.  Yeah, I knew the towel we use to dry off our dogs is pink, but now I could see how pink it really is.  Before, it had a decidedly grey cast to it.  I wandered some more around the house looking at this and that.  Unfortunately we are having a late spring so everything has a boring late March muddiness look to it.  I sauntered over to my studio, turned around and looked at the big maple that looms over our back yard.  My first thought was, "Ellen was right!"

For the first time in my life I saw the bright red buds of a maple tree.

Now, will being able to see color a little better make me a better painter?  Hard to say, because a good painting is more than just pretty color.  There's drawing, and edges, and brushstrokes and a million other things that don't involve color at all.  So for now, let's just call it one more tool in the painter's tool box.

But I can't say I've ever had a tool that gave me new eyes.  And showed me what red buds really look like.


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