For One Artist, Colorblindness Opened Up A World Of Black And White
In 1962, Pop Art was taking off in a frenzy of color: Andy Warhol debuted the Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup can silkscreens that would revolutionize the art world, and Roy Lichtenstein was at work on his giant paintings in the mode of comic strips. That same year, artist Peter Milton, then 32, went to get his eyes tested.
At the time, Milton was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and he'd had a show of some of his paintings. "It got reviewed, and someone referred to how warm and sort of pinky the landscapes were," he says, "and I was horrified."
Pink was not what Milton thought he'd been laying down on the canvas. So he made an appointment at Johns Hopkins University. "It was a brutal test because what they do is they give you 25 — I think that's the number — 25 discs."
Each disc was a different color of the spectrum, from red to violet, and Milton had to put them in order. So he did, and he thought it was fine — until the lab technician started correcting his work.
"She started moving all the pieces around and substituting, putting some farther down the scale and others up," he says. "It was a massive redoing."
The diagnosis: red-green colorblindness, or deuteranopia. That was on top of the nearsightedness that Milton had known about since he was a kid.
"Peter Milton does not have total colorblindness, but it's fairly severe," says Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University and co-author with James Ravin of The Artist's Eyes: Vision and the History of Art. "We see color because we have three types of cone cells, or receptors, in the retina, one of which is mainly blue sensitive, one is red sensitive and one is green sensitive. Some people are born with abnormal red or green sensors. If they're somewhat abnormal, a person doesn't quite discriminate colors on the red-green end of the spectrum as well, but they may see them if they're bright."
For Milton, greens look more like a neutral gray with some yellow, and the color maroon looks like mud.
The Elegance Of Black And White
Colorblindness isn't that uncommon — about 1 in 10 men has some form of it — but Milton was a painter. He studied art at Yale under Josef Albers, who wrote the book on color. Literally. It's called Interaction of Color.
"I was told at one point ... that he thought very highly of my work," Milton says. "And this is very bizarre because I'm the colorblind person, he's the color guru."
Milton wasn't going to abandon art, but he did feel he had to abandon color. And so he embraced black and white. In 1969, he and his family moved to a big yellow house in Francestown, N.H., and in the four decades since, Milton has been making extraordinarily intricate black-and-white prints. You almost need a magnifying glass to take them in: ballerinas, dogs, children and men on bicycles float in and out of ornate train stations and cafes. They're visual puzzles in which past and present seem to merge, but looking closely won't yield an answer. Milton says it's all about invoking a sense of mystery and a mood.
Take the engraving called Mary's Turn. It was inspired by a 1908 photograph by artist Gertrude Kasebier that shows a woman lining up a billiard shot. In Milton's version, the woman is the painter Mary Cassatt, and the billiard balls are floating in the air.
"She's playing this magical game, and characters from her paintings have all assembled and come and watched her play the game," he says. The painter Edgar Degas, who had a fraught relationship with Cassatt, is also looking on with a puzzled expression. The whole thing has a sort of graininess to it, almost like an old black-and-white photograph.
"It's really an examination ... of not having color anymore," Milton says, "of using tonal and texture as your medium. Black and white is almost more elegant; maybe it's fully more elegant than color, unless color is used ... with great elegance in itself."
'I Don't Miss Color'
Of course, Milton isn't the first artist to have worked through eye problems. The two subjects of Mary's Turn, Degas and Cassatt, also had compromised vision.
"Degas probably had a congenital retinal problem," says Stanford's Michael Marmor, "and he had progressive visual loss spanning about 40 years. Mary Cassatt had a different problem: She developed cataracts fairly late in her life."
Claude Monet also had cataracts, eventually losing his ability to tell colors apart. And the 19th-century artist Charles Meryon, who was famous for his etchings of Paris, was colorblind. You might have heard the theory that Vincent van Gogh was colorblind — that one's actually not true.
"He used vibrant greens in many paintings," Marmor says, "and green is a dangerous color for a colorblind person because it lies right between yellow and blue, and to their perception it actually grays out — it loses color."
Marmor says that, like Milton, most artists who found out they were colorblind just switched to printmaking or sculpture. And Milton says his diagnosis kind of took a weight off his shoulders: "I don't miss color. It helps to have a disability — I use that word; it's a strong word — but it helps to have a disability, because when you can do anything, which of all the things you can do are you gonna choose? So something has to help you make the choice."
Or, as Degas put it, "I am convinced that these differences in vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It's false, and it is that falsity that constitutes art."
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