How would you like to be able to see 100 million colors? There are those among us who have this super power, called Tetrachromacy, which I’m guessing, many artists would give their right nut to have. Unfortunately, it is a women only thing. Men cannot be Tetrachromats, only women. And even among women, it is extremely rare.
I think of it as a musician with perfect pitch, which is the ability to name any note one hears. It’s a great party trick. But excellent relative pitch, being able to match the pitch you hear, is a far more useful skill for the true musician. Absolute pitch can often get in the way. Like those with perfect pitch, I wonder if Tetrachromacy might actually be a hindrance to the artist. Let’s hope so, since I don’t have it.
And yet, students often ask me, how do you see the colors you paint? They claim not to be able to see the colors I am pointing out to them in nature. They often will insist there is no blue in this face, or purple in that sunflower. I don’t have the heart to tell them that sometimes I’m just making up the colors that I paint! There’s no magic in what master colorists do. But it does require imagination, experience and taste, all of which I believe can be developed.
The ability to see into colors and exaggerate, reduce or alter them, is one of the great pleasures of the creative process. Even a true Tetrochromat needs training to understand what they see and to be able to use their super power in a creative way.
At first, it feels like The Emperor’s New Clothes; sometimes you just have to pretend to see the colors long enough, until you do. As Kurt Vonnegut once said in Mother Night, “we are what we pretend to be.” Seek a color and you shall find it.
So, how do we know what colors to “seek?” After all, color isn’t completely arbitrary. For me, evocative use of color comes from the knowledge that all colors are present in all things, in varying degrees. That gives me a certain freedom right there. Consider the Eastern knowledge of yin and yang. Everything’s opposite is present within itself. That’s why I am always on the lookout for a color’s complement. There is always some green in red, some purple in orange, etc. Cross pollinating color is an extremely expressive tool. Offset printing is a process which creates the illusion of a multitude of colors with just four basic hues. The Impressionists understood this concept very well. In fact, at its foundation, Impressionism is nothing more than the study of how the play of light affects an object’s color.
Another principal which trained artists understand is that color is relative. For instance, absolute gray, appears blue next to oranges and reds. Context is far more important than any absolute idea of a color. Ironically, using a limited palette is a great way to maximize the potential of color, forcing us to find ways to create color rather than simply pulling it out of our paint box.
The heightened sense of value, the ability to see subtle variations of black and white, is a far more useful skill than seeing a thousand variants of Mauve. In fact, isolating the value of a color is the key to mastering the illusion of form. That’s why the study of value is the basis of my teaching method, called The Power of Positive Painting. If we focus on value, the theory goes, we then can allow our subconscious mind free reign to play with hue and chroma, without interference from the ego, the queen of literal, raining on our parade.
Tetrachromats are rare indeed. But will being one make you a great artist? Not in my book. Devoting yourself to the practice of your craft, studying color theory and applying the ancient secrets of the masters will make you a more competent artist than any natural super power. But study and devotion is only the beginning. Developing your eye to see and express what you believe is important, to be in constant inquiry about what you choose to keep and/or what to discard, is what leads to finding your voice as a true artist.