I recently stumbled across a rather stunning idea. After visiting a design exhibit that modeled the visual experience of people with colorblindness, Kazunori Asada noticed that the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh on display had entered a new light, so to speak. Under the chromatically filtered light, Van Gogh’s more striking and curious color choices suddenly became natural and warm. It was if this was how they were meant to be viewed, Asada thought.
Did Vincent Van Gogh have a color vision deficiency?
Those of us with normal vision are able to differentiate the full range of visible wavelengths thanks to three different types of cone cell photoreceptors that, together, cover the range of the spectrum we are accustomed to seeing. Although they are most sensitive to blue, green and yellow-green light, they are termed “blue”, “green” and “red” receptors. This is known as “trichromacy”.
We probably all know someone who is colorblind, right? My dad is. There are three main classes of common “color-blindness”. These are termed “dichromacy”, since they are due to the lack of one photoreceptor. Protanopia is the lack of red receptors (their ROYGBIV rainbow looks like the one above), deuteranopia is the lack of green receptors, and tritanopia (the rarest) is the lack of blue receptors. What’s important is that these aren’t all-or-nothing situations. Someone’s vision can land on a very wide range of those deficiencies.
Asada developed a color vision simulation program that can convert any image to a close approximation of what colorblind people would see. You can play with it here, which I STRONGLY suggest you do. He also developed a free iOS and Android app that can take your photos through the eyes of the colorblind. I’ve played with it, and it’s awesome.
When you look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” above, the left side is the unchanged painting and the right side is moderate red receptor loss. Some of the more reddish and orange hues in the “normal” lefthand version become even yellows on the right, as we may expect for stars and moonlight. I think the contrast between the shadows and sky becomes more striking in the filtered version, too.
It’s definitely a matter of opinion, to some degree. Who knows what Van Gogh saw or intended us to see? But some paintings, like his sunflowers series, are even more striking in their differences. SImply put, they look more like actual sunflowers. Go and read Asada’s full analysis, complete with a bunch of side-by-side comparisons, and see for yourself.
Here’s the colorblindness simulator for you to play with your own images at home. Either way it’s the most interesting look at art through the lens of vision science since Monet’s ultraviolet eye.