Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you were colorblind? I have, and in every instance, I've imagined myself missing out on one of the biggest pleasure I have in life–creating with color. It wasn't until I met Bonnie Auten that I came to realize that what I thought would be an almost unimaginable handicap might be a blessing in disguise.
Bonnie is a skilled artist who I have admired for many years. I recognized right away that Bonnie had both artistic talent and an eye for color that was better than most. I knew I wanted to study with Bonnie so that I could continue to improve my ability to have the colors I see be the ones that show up on my canvas. You can only imagine my surprise when I learned Bonnie is colorblind.
Early in Bonnie's art career, while waiting for her son to complete his eye appointment, she spied some images in the waiting room that tested color blindness. She looked at each plate. Sometimes she saw a number and other times nothing but a field of dots. She suspected something might not be quite right.
She mentioned her concern to the doctor, and within a few minutes, he revealed that she was correct. She had failed the tests. Bonnie took more tests and failed those, too. The doctor told Bonnie that she was not only colorblind but one of the worst female cases he had ever seen.
Bonnie went home from the doctor's office in tears wondering how she was ever going to fulfill her dream of being a fine artist when she couldn't see all of the nuances of color that most everyone else can see. Much to her credit Bonnie didn't pack up her easel and give up.
Bonnie knew she could see color and so was a bit confused with how she could be considered colorblind. But the term colorblind is a bit misleading. The majority of people regarded as colorblind see color. They just don't see certain colors or the same range of colors as the average person.
In Bonnie's case, she sees many colors very well, but some colors seem to recede or go entirely unnoticed. Some colors look more red or green to her than they do to most of us. What I find most interesting is that by looking at her paintings, you wouldn't have any idea that she didn't see the full range of colors.
So how does she paint pictures in full color so beautifully? Bonnie learned everything she could both about color and being colorblind. She figured that if she could understand her handicap that she could find a way to overcome it. Bonnie studied all about the properties and principals of color: value and contrast, warm and cool colors, and also about the color wheel and how it works.
But most artists study these same things and aren't as skilled at using color, as Bonnie is, so I had to know more about her process. Not just what she sees but how she makes decisions about what colors to use and how it is that Bonnie can use color so masterfully even though she is technically colorblind.
What Bonnie shared is that while she cannot see some colors as well as many other artists, what she does possess is an incredible talent for seeing the color's value. As soon as I heard her say that she sees the value first and the color second, I completely understood how her handicap might be an advantage. Here's why.
Value, defined as how light or dark a color is, sounds simple, right? However, I think that it is in the simplicity of the definition that the complexity and importance of value begins to get lost, which is unfortunate. Whether you are a student or professional, an artist, designer, or DIY'r, it is far more critical for you to understand value than any other aspect of color if you want to create successful designs.
Value is not only the thing that students seem to struggle with most but fully understanding the importance of value is something that many professionals never master. It is the characteristic of color that many people–dare I say–undervalue.
Bonnie explains that "For many artists, colors sing to them. Colors sing to them so loudly that they cannot hear the value whispering." I love her insightful explanation, and I find the same to be true for designers or anyone that uses color, not just artists.
Another reason focusing on color value may fall to the wayside is that you can create pretty good paintings, graphics, or interior design schemes without mastering value. I regularly see designs that are good but would be so much better if the color value and value contrasts. I've even guilty of having created some myself.
There have been times when I've come back to a painting or design with fresh eyes and discovered that I had become so enamored with the colors that I had forgotten to step back and consider value. If value and value contrast aren't foremost in your mind, it is likely you might not notice that a darker or lighter color may work better.
You might feel that something isn't quite right but not immediately recognize that the problem is in the value of a color you chosen or that lack of value contrast between colors because as Bonnie says value speaks with a whisper. You need to evaluate the lightness or darkness of the colors with as much thought as you give to selecting just the right hue.
If you are already a good artist or designer but are paying close attention to how you use value and begin evaluating the values you choose as carefully as the colors themselves everything you create will be that much better!
And if you are learning to use color, taking the time to understand the values of color and how to incorporate a range of darks and lights into your work will help you to create pleasing designs or works of art more quickly.
Knowing value or any aspect of color is not an end in itself. Gaining an understanding is only the first step. Studying how others have used value remarkably well will help you to develop the ability to make value work its magic in your designs. It will also ensure that you will hear the whisper of value over the cacophony of color.
The painting above titled Labino Tribute by Bonnie Autenm was chosen to be on the cover of the Colored Pencil Society of America's Signature Showcase Book coming out this year. To learn more about Bonnie Auten and see more of her paintings visit her website http://www.bonnieauten.com/
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