The Colour Project, Castelnau de Montmiral (CdM) 2003

Project and Opportunity

Gordon Frickers would like to hear from specialist practitioners with an interest in “anomalous colour vision and colour constancy”, to discuss and explore these challenging issues.

Are you interested working with Gordon Frickers on aspects of human visual response? Kindly forward your initial reaction to

Anomalous colour vision & colour constancy in human vision

What is colour blindness?

When Gordon Frickers a colour-blind marine artist was persuaded to paint his actual colour experience he found it very difficult to turn off his learned responses.
After a painful struggle he gradually did.
His work immediately became more interesting, full of visual surprises for everybody concerned, perhaps most of all for normal’s, “trichromates”.

Suddenly before their very eyes were exciting palettes of colours with which they had nothing to compare.

Theoretical advances in the understanding of colour vision

Gordon Frickers thinks the hither to simplistic understanding by colour normal’s of his colour experience has proven woefully inadequate.
Several things did not add up.

Preliminary work at the Painting School of Montmiral as far back as 1991 suggested some very exciting possibilities which he would like to follow up with a though investigation.

His route lead via exhibiting at the Mall Galleries, Pall Mall, London, to the Painting School of Montmiral at the remote, peaceful and in those days still very rustic, no rather, still almost medieval hill top village of Castelnau de Montmiral in South West France.

At the Painting School of Montmiral we thought there was evidence that “colour blind” students have a very different experience.
Otherwise and importantly their extremely surprising capacity for identifying colours could not be explained.

The “Ishihara Colour Blindness Test” – It would seem from his notes that Dr. Ishihara must have made similar observations, however he was concerned with colour normal response and as far as we know, noted but did not take the time to investigate further.
Besides, it is unlikely he had an experienced professional artist to work with him.

Typically “colour blindness” is an emotive and possibly derogatory term.
We find about 10% of the population has this irregularity, almost all men, 0.5% or about 1 in 250 of women are affected.

There is a social stigma attached to “colour blindness” for example:

  • It effects job applications,
  • Daily life for example, most colour charts, maps etc are not user friendly to these people.
  • They are less able to identify an angry or ill red face.
  • For more importantly, a man is less able to comment at the right time or even favourably on a woman’s choice of clothing, hair colour or even lipstick.
  • Conversely there is evidence that some times these people have an advantage.

The first obvious conclusion is:
Two of the primaries (i.e. “yellow” and “green”) would be missing.
The second is:
The gamut of colours generated would have to pass through neutral.

If a neutral sensation is the outcome of mixing the two primaries, questions quickly arise:

  1. Can such a visual system, could such a visual system indeed produce a secondary hue at all?
  2. Am I working without green or with very limited green, but also without all the secondary colours not to mention their derivatives?

If it is difficult to envisage this conclusion, consider the gamut of colours which can be mixed from any two complementary paint colours. The impossibility of producing a full range of colours by mixing them must be evident to everybody.

Clearly, if Gordon depends on only one opponent colour pair, it would be virtually impossible for him to produce copies of natural scenes that appear “realistic” to “normal” people. However he has shown a strong response to colour from a very early age.

An example being his Mother’s often repeated story of the distinguished artist Ruskin Speare recognising unusual qualities in his and his step brother’s art work when Gordon was aged six. (His step brother has the distinction of becoming the first Professor of Graphic Design and is even more radically colour blind than Gordon; who Ruskin Speare predicted would be the better artist of the two).

It does not seem possible to square the combination of the demonstrated capacities of Gordon’s type of vision with any explanation depending on the existence in the retina of only two receptor types.


  1. What is going on?
  2. How is Gordon experiencing and working with colours that according to Dr. Ishihara’s test Gordon can not see?
  3. Are some green-sensitive cones remaining?
  4. Does he use some alternative sources of colour information?
  5. Are the elaborate and time consuming strategies of Gordon and other similarly visual students’ significant?
  6. What analytic strategies does Gordon use?
  7. Can colour blind people distinguish colours that should otherwise be inaccessible to them?
  8. Particularly do they make use of strategies?
  9. Might they use a system which probably we all have but normals hardly use?
  10. Dedicated to separating out surface-reflection from body-colour?
  11. Can they see colours that normal’s are blind to?
  12. Do they have better night colour vision than normal’s?
  13. In evolutionary terms, why have so many “colour blind” people survived, do they for example have an experience that is not so easily fooled by some forms of camouflage?
  14. In this context, it is interesting to ask whether the “colour blind” experience colour constancy?
  15. Is there a fourth colour sensitive receptor?
  16. Might this have its origin outside the fovea?

This line of argument led irresistibly to the question as to whether there could be another receptor-type in the retina capable of mediating colour vision?

This question is difficult to answer in the affirmative.

If they experience colour constancy this would suggest that they have access to an opponent colour system with the same general properties as those of colour normal’s and would give support to the ideas.

So, can aspects of perception, which common sense would suggest as being disadvantages, be viewed in an advantageous light?

Without going into technical details which Gordon can if you wish, He has suggested in the preceding paragraphs, it has turned out that the apparently “crazy” structure of the retina might not be such a bad bit of engineering after all.

It has been estimated that about 10% of men are subject to what is normally referred to as “red/green colour blindness”.
When such a large proportion of a species maintains a genetically determined trait, it is usually because it has proved to be of significant practical use.

Can we conclude and establish that red/green colour blind people perform better than “colour normal’s” under some circumstances for example by detecting at least some camouflaged objects? Can we depend on an alternative visual systems to discover vital information?

If so, what is more likely than that they would have developed the sensitivity of their movement-detection systems? It would help them to become aware of the slightest movement in the distance, for examples the undergrowth or the tree canopy.

For hunters, opponent colour exaggerations may not have been much of an advantage.
Indeed, for reasons just suggested and others, they may have hindered the detection of camouflaged animals and discouraged the development of movement sensitivity.
Perhaps this explains why the majority about (95%) of existing red/green colour blind individuals are men.
It would be interesting to compare the colour vision of various predators with this idea in mind.

From the point of view (literally) of the “colour blind” artist a different advantage may be suggested.

In general, there is a self-evident potential advantage to any community of having, amongst its members, people who represent many different ways of perceiving the same thing.
This is as true at the physiological level as it is at the conceptual one.
There are well-demonstrated advantages of multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving, “double your brain power, get some one else to help!” Should this truth apply to different kinds of colour vision? If so, what advantages could anomalous colour vision give to artists with their use of colour?

Any answer to this question should be of general interest, the influence going far beyond the limits of the artistic world.

Creativity in general and in painting and drawing in particular depends on seeing in new ways.
It follows that dichromate’s start at an advantage relative to normal’s, trichromates.
Their visual experience is certainly significantly different.

The difference includes not only the range of colours but to varying degrees, the stability of their colour world.

When Gordon Frickers a colour-blind marine artist was persuaded to paint his actual colour experience he found it very difficult to turn off his learned responses.
After a painful struggle he gradually did, his work immediately became more interesting, full of visual surprises for everybody concerned, perhaps most of all for normal’s, “trichromates”.

Suddenly before their very eyes were an exciting palette of colours with which they had nothing to compare.
Unique is a much over used word these days however it is fully justified in this case.
The initial break through paintings came in 1991 with a series called “Red Bales” and an other called “Forest Fire”.
Paintings that it is impossible to recreate, each is a unique response to a particular location and period of time.

Some were excited.
The Teacher who had been pressing Gordon to paint “as you see not as you have learned, ignore the names on the tubes” etc, dismissed the paintings as “wild pyrotechnics“.

The Colour Project, Castelnau de Montmiral (CdM) 2003, later described as “Stupendous Sun Drenched landscapes of France” was mostly about following up these discoveries and theories.
There is much still to do.
This is a very unique series of paintings.

Gordon Frickers courageously worked in temperatures up to 45°C some times from dawn to dusk, entirely at his own risk and expense to begin to explore these issues.
He had no idea of the response he would get from other people, indeed that was irrelevant at the time.
This was a voyage of pure research, literally Art for Art’s sake in the best tradition of past masters.

Next, numerous experiments are required, at least to match primaries to the colour stimuli.

We would like assistance getting a grant to study some of the issues primarily not exclusively through painting, and write a paper on this and possibly make a short film.

  • Benefits: The availability of valuable new information, the intellectual property resulting.Put to practical use by artists and others people with anomalous colour vision.
    It will help “normal’s” design for the colour blind.

    This knowledge may help dichromates – the colour blind, to learn and exploit an advantage for certain tasks relative to colour normal’s, thus gives them the potential for playing a creative role in our society.

Gordon Frickers 21.02.05

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