Artist Tests Color-Blind Correction Glasses

By Jeremy Hsu | January 14, 2015 5:56 pm
The artist Adam Fenton standing with a painting he made without Oxy-Iso glasses (left) and with the glasses (right). Credit: Adam Fenton

The artist Adam Fenton standing with a painting he made without Oxy-Iso glasses (left) and with the glasses (right). Credit: Adam Fenton

Being color blind never stopped Adam Fenton from painting. The London-based artist has built his career upon landscape paintings and color studies despite being one of the millions of men with some form of red-green color blindness. But when Fenton heard about a new type of glasses that could correct for color-blind vision, he was eager to see what difference they could make in both his art and his daily life.

One of Fenton’s friends sent him an article about Oxy-Iso glasses; a lens technology that enhances the wearer’s vision of oxygen levels in blood and highlights certain color hues that would normally be invisible for people with red-green colorblindness. Researchers at 2AI Labs originally invented and sold the glasses under the brand name O2AMP with the idea of helping physicians and nurses better spot veins beneath the skin or see bruises on a patient’s body. More recently, the glasses have found a customers among the colorblind community as well.

“When I first heard about them, I envisioned wearing them and being instantly cured,” Fenton says. “It was nothing like that, but other interesting things happened.”

The evolution of color vision

The Oxy-Iso glasses arose from the evolutionary theories of Mark Changizi, a theoretical neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. Changizi has observed how humans and certain other primates have evolved the unique ability to see red-green colors. By comparison, most mammals lack the ability to see red-green colors. Changizi’s theory, as detailed in his book “The Vision Revolution,” suggests that red-green color vision evolved to help the social life of primates such as humans.

Oxygen levels in blood can change skin color between red and green, whereas control over the amount of blood in the skin can make the color shift between yellow and blue. Together, they can transmit a wide array of social signals. A flushed face can signal anger; blushing may indicate embarrassment. Blanching or yellowing can accompany sudden fear. Changizi points out that primates with red-green color vision also have bare patches of skin on their faces or butts to make such signaling visible. (Humans are notably naked compared to most hairier primates.)

Credit: Adam Fenton

Credit: Adam Fenton

Changizi and his 2AI partner, Timothy Barber, also realized that the oxygen levels in blood affect skin color in a way that gives useful clues about a person’s health. That provided the initial medical focus for their O2AMP technology, including the Oxy-Iso glasses that Fenton read about.

Fenton reached out to Changizi and asked if he could try out a pair of the Oxy-Iso glasses as part of an artistic experiment. His red-green color blindness — one of several hereditary conditions that affect about one in eight men versus one in 200 women — had always made it difficult for him to see warmer color hues such as pink, red, orange and brown. But when he received the glasses and tried them on, he realized that the glasses highlighted reddish and orangish colors in a way that made the world look surreal. London’s famous double-decker buses appeared to glow “radioactively” as they drove down the road. His own skin appeared as an unnatural orange.

“It’s kind of like when you wear those old 3D glasses; everything is one color, but red things or warm things really jumped out,” Fenton explains. “I noticed my skin and it almost had a strange glowing effect. I learned that warm colors exhibited this phenomenon.”

Testing the Oxy-Iso glasses

Fenton had previously learned to apply similar-looking colors “blind” by deducing their effect on ordinary people without color blindness through years of painting experience. For the first time, the Oxy-Iso glasses allowed him to see the difference between colors such as Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber; the former had the extra glowing effect of warmer colors as seen through the glasses. But colors such as greens and blues did not look noticeably different with the Oxy-Iso glasses, even if the glowing effect of the warm colors almost made the greens and blues seem colder by comparison.

The Oxy-Iso glasses allowed Fenton to experiment with how they affected his painting style. He had previously done a series of landscape paintings all based on the same photograph to consider the variations that arise both intentionally and unintentionally in such projects. With the glasses in hand, he worked on two similar landscape paintings that he titled “Colour Study A” (made without the glasses) and “Colour Study B” (made with the glasses).

Colour Study A (left) was made without Oxy-Iso glasses; Colour Study B was made with the glasses. Credit: Adam Fenton

Colour Study A (left) was made without Oxy-Iso glasses; Colour Study B was made with the glasses. Credit: Adam Fenton

Some of his written notes from study A included the following:

  • “When I put on the glasses, I saw the warmth in my painting disappear. The image I was painting from kept its warm hues, yet mine, which appeared just as warm without glasses, changed to having a cooler ambience over the whole image, especially in the foreground.”
  • “Even the heather in the foreground — which from my knowledge of the plant bares purplish flowers, turned a cooler purple. I ensured that I mixed red into the paint to create a color I thought correct. Yet still, what I thought was correct was far from it.”
  • “I don’t feel I mixed extra blues into the greens to make the hues cooler, I think I omitted the addition of warmer hues.”
  • “It made me realize that there were much fewer reds, terracottas and siennas in my palette and those that were present were fairly untouched.”

Painting study B with the Oxy-Iso glasses proved somewhat trickier than expected. The warmer colors popped out in Fenton’s vision while he wore the glasses, but sometimes the similar fluorescent glow made it difficult to tell the difference between warm hues such as red and orange. At the same time, cooler colors such as greens, cool browns, grays and blues tended to look similar because they were not highlighted by the Oxy-Iso glasses.

“One difficulty experienced with the Oxy-Iso Optics is the distinguishing between light and dark tones,” according to Fenton’s written notes. “The glasses make darker warm hues appear brighter due to the presence of red. The brighter/lighter green hues appear darker/duller.”

In a a recent phone interview, Fenton recalled that wearing the Oxy-Iso glasses didn’t necessarily help him with painting or achieving what he wanted with his particular artistic goals. But he point out that wearing the glasses allowed him to fully pass the Ishihara test that is commonly used to help diagnose color blindness. He also continues to use the glasses to occasionally check the differences in warmth between similar shades of brown or other colors.

Seeing through the eyes of artists

A series of landsape paintings done by Fenton prior to his experiment with the Oxy-Iso glasses. Credit: Adam Fenton

A series of landsape paintings done by Fenton prior to his experiment with the Oxy-Iso glasses. Credit: Adam Fenton

The idea of how color blindness impacts an artist’s vision has fascinated people for decades. Speculation that artist Vincent van Gogh was color blind has recently spawned some fun visual experiments despite lacking any historical evidence. In reality, color-blind artists have dealt with their own variations of color blindness in different ways. For instance, Charles Meryon, a 19th-century artist known for his images of Paris, worked around his color blindness by focusing on etching rather than painting. But Fenton sees color blindness as just one element of his own personal style that has not hindered his artistic goals or work.

“Color blindness is a condition that is diagnosable and recognized,” Fenton says. “But I think every person or every artist has their own way of seeing and they can translate that into their work.”

Fenton occasionally receives suggestions that he try to create paintings that convey the view of a color-blind person. He avoids doing so mostly because he finds the idea to be somewhat gimmicky and one-dimensional. To him, there are many more interesting things about how individual artists translate their vision of the world into painting, sculptures or any other forms of art.

“That’s why painting is interesting to people; it’s about how each person does that process of translation, whether it’s with big brush strokes or by using a lot of color,” Fenton says.

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  • Aleta Boddy

    Well that’s fascinating… I would like to try wearing glasses that made me see the world as a colorblind person would see it; I have such a hard time imagining what it must be like.

    • Ferit Tuzer

      turning leaf colors appear red or green whereas they are the other. when an object has a close mix of red and green I have trouble placing them it into one of those colors.

    • Javier Villegas

      you can download the zoomorph IOS app to see real time simulation of colorblind humans and other animals.

    • Kenneth Allblom

      Aleta, have a look at http://www.seekey.se/colourUK.htm
      The top “dotted circle” I have manipulated, so for me it looks the same as the lower circle. The lower circle contains a no. 7 which cannot be distinguished by a color-blind person. I can not see the 7 without help of my invention Seekey.

  • Jim Schweder

    Colorblindness has never really been a problem for me – with the exception that many of my gray shirts turned out to be pink.

  • CheekyB

    There’s a company in Berkeley CA that also makes these color blind glasses. I think it is called enchroma. Hopefully this will soon be a thing of the past.

  • Matthew Rings

    It is much more accurate to use the diagnostic term “color deficient” and not “colorblind”, noting that most men are only mildly affected by their congenital condition.
    New computerized color tests like Konan Medical’s “ColorDx” can determine weakness of specific Red, Green or Blue cones, and grade the deficiency as Mild, Moderate, or Severe.
    Dr. Rings, color vision researcher

    • Kenneth Allblom

      Very correct, Matthew. I have been using the term “uncommon color vision” instead of color blind. We who have this uncommon color vision see many colors, but not in the same way as people with the common color vision. My invention, Seekey, helps a lot.

  • jackregnart

    Well this is interesting, a good friend of mine is an artist and colourblind. We have had long discussions on the benefits of these glasses. It really just seems like that they help you distinguish between shades (I am led to believe that colourblind people with my friends particular strain see 5% out of the apparent million shades of colour that people perceive) and they don’t necessarily ‘correct’ your colour perception – being able to pass the Ishihara test doesn’t necessarily mean anything – in my opinion anyway.

    But then do people really all perceive colour the same? It’s interesting, people often test this guy and pick up a pot of ink and ask him what it is. Of course he’s going to know, people’s perception of colour is relative to their experience with it, he’s picked up that pot of ink many times and knows what the colour looks like to him…

    Despite the scepticism it’s interesting to see an artist’s take on the whole thing. It might convince him to try them out. But then he’s the kind of person that if he got it into his head that the glasses were correct and all his paintings were ‘wrong’ he’d probably burn his body of work… So I guess we’ll see what happens there.

    Anyway you can check out some of the process behind his work here http://instagram.com/artbydavidroberts

  • Rex Burch

    I’m reaching out to ask for your support for my online
    fundraiser: “Enchroma Glasses can solve my colorblindness” on
    Indiegogo Life. Learn more about it here:
    http://igg.me/at/HMxuVfUJQKk

    There are two ways to help:

    1. Donate – even SMALL donations raise the campaign’s
    popularity and gives it more visibility on the site, not to mention the help it
    gives me reaching my goal.

    2. Post to Facebook – in the end, the more people hear about
    my need, the more likely I am to meet the target.

    Indiegogo Life has no fees, so any money raised goes
    directly to the goal.

    Thank you in advance for your help.

    Sincerely,
    Rex Burch

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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