How to Paint the Invisible: Working Past Colour Blindness

September 09, 2015

When I was sixteen I was drawing an animated card in flash for somebodies birthday, two people were on the front smiling and waving. I was really proud of it, and showed the family friend that asked me to make it. "That's great! but... why are they green?". In one sentence I thought that my dreams of becoming a professional artist had been dashed.

Nine years down the track and I'm still here. Obviously I'm far from being considered in the industry elite, but I do have some notable achievements and I feel like I have a good grasp of how to work as a colour blind artist, what that means and how to work around it. At the start clients would guess that something was off, but slowly those comments died away and I haven't had anyone guess for a few years now.


What is it Like to be Colour Blind?

Now I know that this article will have both healthy colour vision, and colour blind readers, so this is my attempt to contextualize and explain my experience with having colour blindness, both to explain and to find common ground.

It's not the simplest to give you an accurate answer, as there are a lot of things that are contextual. A lot of the time there will be two colours, lets take a brown and a green. I know that they are different. But that's all I know, I couldn't point to one swatch and say definitely that one is green and that one is brown. It's also contextual, say I look at a patch of grass, in my mind it is green, because of course the grass is green, but really it might be that the grass is actually brown, and I would have no idea. Also the other major difficulty is that gradients make everything harder. What I can recognize as two distinct hues when up against next each other look identical when there is a smooth shift between them. As you can get the idea it isn't as simple as it seems at first.

So these colours are easy for me to tell apart.

However this is a block of one hue for me. This is what colour blindness tests don't tell you. Now imagine trying to paint an image of a person in a forest with dappled lighting. It can border on the level of insanity trying to keep everything the correct hue.

This is of course a purely technical exercise in showing what it is, but what may make the example more powerful is an actual painting.

This is a detail photo of a masterful Bouguereau portrait, I have digitally modified one of these versions to be completely monochromatic, while the other has subtle shifts of green, and blue.

I am not able to tell the difference between these two images.

This is how a friend with a strong sense of colour vision explained it to me.

The background is green, the ear has red translucency, the eyes have more red, so do the lips, cheeks and nose, mainly in the shadows. basically the skin looks dead in the second picture.

If you are colour blind, and this is the first time realizing that you cannot see a property to skin that people use to define whether somebody looks dead or not, it can be a very heavy realization.

So with this in mind we need to find a method to definitively tell us what a colour is, and hopefully find a way to visualize that difference in a useful manner, because the images we are making are for non colour blind people, or "normies" as i like to call them, and they have an emotional connection to things that are invisible to us!


The computer is your friend!

So the first rule of being a colour blind artist is you need accept that your eyes suck, and you need to rely on tools to help you out. Sadly this means using traditional paint is probably out of practicality for professional work, as mixing colours by hand is only practical visually.

The most effective tool for painting for you is going to be the RGB sliders. HSV is too inaccurate and requires you to visually pick a hue, so it isn't useful in this regard. Using the RGB colours to start with will be a frustrating experience but there is a logic too it that gets intuitive after a few days of using it.

When all the sliders are in a vertical line, that means that you have a grey.

The right most slider is going to be the dominant primary. The distance between the farthest two sliders is your saturation. The average point between all three sliders will define the brightness.

The middle slider will define the blend between a tertiary and your primary colours.

Have a play around, it isn't as scary as it looks at first. To practice I would recommend getting a colourful photo and attempting to match colours from the image with nothing but the sliders. It will take a while but soon you will be able to hit the mark as fast or if not faster than using the visual colour picker.


Adjustment Layers:

With the RGB mixing technique, you have a toolset to properly understand colour and move away from inaccurate methods, however we can take this a step further, and make the invisible visible to us using some fancy Photoshop tricks. With adjustment layers we are able to temporarily change an image to have different properties, and Photoshop lets us work like they aren't even there!

First we need to set your colour picker in Photoshop to "all layers no adjustments".

Next, make an hue and saturation adjustment layer.

Then we need to set the adjustment to the "color" layer mode. (this prevents Photoshop from changing values as you hue shift.)

Now we have an adjustment layer, which lets us paint like it isn't even there! Now the idea is that we want to hue shift the part of the spectrum that we are having difficulty seeing to a part of the spectrum we can easily see, and if that isn't enough we can take it even further and we can boost up the saturation.

This is what is effective for me on this example image.

no saturation boost

What is brilliant about this setup is that as long as you paint below the adjustment layer, we are performing no actual colour transformations to the final image, and yet we are able to see through this magic window and see what was practically invisible to us before.

I would recommend using this technique as a finishing technique, as it is very easy to get carried away. Get as far as you possibly can using true colours, then at the end use this technique to paint the subtleties that you cannot see. I would also recommend getting a normy friend to check over your work, as they are the ones we are trying to appease with these techniques.


Philosophy:

With these techniques you now have a way to objectively know what a colour is, and a method to be able to see what was invisible.

The other thing I would implore you to do is to learn as much about the technicalities of light theory as possible, colour science is the best tool you have to understanding the vision deficiencies that you may have. I have seen way too many colour blind artists that decide that the situation is hopeless, so they instead find crutches, and their work suffers more than it needs to. The potential you have to fuck up colours due to lack of knowledge is far higher than any deficiency you may have.

Colour blindness should be a challenge to be the best you can be, not a crippling wound.

~Muzz


If you have any other ideas that may help artists, I would love to hear them. Send me either an email to muzzoid@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

References:

LinRan Painting Tutorial

Images:

Painting- Bouguereau