It might sound like heresy to say that a great painter such as van Gogh had a limited ability to see colors… but a recent exploration by Kazunori Asada and some color vision deficient friends turned up some very interesting new insights. Asada, who has previously written on tools to assist people with color vision deficiencies, was invited to speak at an event for the Hokkaido Color Universal Design Organization (HCUDO). As a way to educate the public about the great diversity of color vision found in our world, the organizers had set up a “Color Vision Experience Room.” Inside, observers were treated to walls of van Gogh paintings illuminated by lights with an optical filter which provided a modified spectrum of light. The effect simulated what many people experience with a limited spectrum of color perception and for Asada, he saw something very interesting:
“Under the filtered light, I found that these paintings looked different from the van Gogh which I had always seen. I love van Gogh’s paintings and have been fortunate to view a number of the originals in various art museums. This painter has a somewhat strange way to use color. Although the use of color is rich, lines of different colors run concurrently, or a point of different color suddenly appears. I’ve heard it conjectured that van Gogh had color vision deficiency.”
“However, in the van Gogh images seen in the color vision experience room, to me the incongruity of color and roughness of line had quietly disappeared. And each picture had changed into one of brilliance with very delicate lines and shades. This was truly wonderful experience.”
Later, Asada would talk with a friend, a painter and designer with protanomal color vision, who also speculated that van Gogh may have been colorblind. Intrigued by the idea, he modified the van Gogh paintings you see here with a Flash based web application he created. The app allows you to modify images to more accurately represent protanomal, as well as other types of vision. For more on Asada’s work, more images of van Gogh’s painting in a new light and an excellent writeup on his experience, head to asada0.tumblr.com.
So was van Gogh colorblind? Is it speculation? Yes. Improbable? Probably. But the idea certainly lends new eyes to the world, letting us see into what it means to be color blind and how one great artists work translates very, very well.
Above: van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
Below: “The Harvest” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
“The Cafe Terrace at Night” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
“The Road Menders” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
“The Sower” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
“The Sunflower” – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
Self-portrait – Original on the left, Protanomal simulation (60%) on the right.
For reference, Renoir’s “A Girl With a Watering Can” from 1876. While van Gogh’s colors seem to become more realistic with Protanomal simulation, Renoir’s become muddied and difficult to differentiate (notice the pink rose compared to the color of the path):