What DO YOUR Eyes See?

Greenhouse Effect 8" x 10"

Greenhouse Effect
8″ x 10″

I see the world as big, abstract pieces. This painting and the colors in it are exactly how this backyard scene with a greenhouse looked to me. (Here is a photograph of the same scene).

Greenhouse Original Photo

Greenhouse Original Photo

A little over a week ago I had cataracts removed from my right eye and a lens implant. (I know what you’re thinking… “But you’re so young!” Why yes I am, thank you very much for noticing.) My doctor has known me for over 30 years and has been very curious about my artist’s sight and sense of color. In fact, Dr. Gary Jerkins and I have discussed theories on Monet’s and Degas’ cataracts, something HE had studied and wanted to know my thoughts. When my cataracts very first began developing, I noticed. Seems I’m something of a little Princess actually because I had two different types. My surgeon, Dr. Rebecca Taylor, couldn’t believe I could even tell yet, as the cataracts were hardly developed at all. Most non-artists likely wouldn’t have thought anything was going on for 10 or 15 years more.

Flash forward to my post-op appointment. As soon as my doctor removed the eye patch, I could immediately tell that the left eye needs surgery too. It hadn’t been noticeable before because the right was a bit worse. The second thing I could really measure was the difference in color I could see with my new right eye. Unbelievable. I mean, these were beginning stages cataracts and I could sincerely notice the difference.

It is not uncommon for students in my workshops to challenge me on the colors I use. Oftentimes someone will say something like, “Well that’s a pretty color you used, but it sure isn’t what’s there.” I have even had students actually argue with me that I am just making up colors completely, even though I am not.

The truth, and what I try to teach them, is that we all perceive color differently. I’m not even talking about people with color blindness. I’m talking about people who see color as distinctly as you or I think that we do. What may appear as blue to you could appear green to someone else. It makes sense that this certainly happens easily between colors that are very near one another. Think of it as measuring blue-green and green-blue on the color wheel. Some people will find it difficult to tell which is which. However, many other factors can also play a role in perceived color difference.

Eye graphic Credit: American Academy of Ophthalmology

Eye graphic
Credit: American Academy of Ophthalmology

One of those factors is a cataract. A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s naturally clear lens. The lens focuses light rays on the retina (the layer of light-sensing cells lining the back of the eye) to produce a sharp image of what we see. As a cataract develops, the lens will become cloudy. Light rays cannot pass through it as easily and vision is blurred. This cloudiness is particularly yellow. So not only is the image blurry, it is darkened due to less light focusing on the retina, and yellow. You can imagine how this changes what you, as an artist, sees in your scene.

It’s nothing new to imagine how many famous artists through time have developed cataracts. Claude Monet, for example, reportedly developed cataracts around 1912. He had been painting his waterlily works since before the turn of that century. As the cataracts progresses, so too did the colors of his paintings. His works between 1918-1922 show muddier and darker tones, larger brush strokes, and indistinct coloration, particularly the absence of light blues. According to the National Gallery, London, it is widely accepted that he also had a form of cataract removal at age 82. Some researchers believe that Monet simply decided on a stylistic change, but in his own words, he penned, “To think I was getting on so well, more absorbed than I’ve ever been and expecting to achieve something, but I was forced to change my tune and give up a lot of promising beginnings and abandon the rest; and on top of that, my poor eyesight makes me see everything in a complete fog. It’s very beautiful all the same and it’s this which I’d love to have been able to convey. All in all, I am very unhappy.” – August 11, 1922, Giverny. He wrote that “colors no longer had the same intensity for me . . . reds had begun to look muddy . . . my painting was getting more and more darkened.” He felt that he could no longer distinguish or choose colors well and was “on the one hand trusting solely to the labels on the tubes of paint and, on the other, to force of habit.”

Degas, who also developed what is believed to have been macular degeneration. According to the Vision and Aging Lab, by his forties, Degas developed a loss of central vision. Painting became even more difficult, as he was forced to paint around this scotoma. Later on, Degas had problems identifying colors and asked his models to identify the colors of his media. His vision became progressively worse, and by 1891, at age 57, he could no longer read. “I see even worse this winter, I do not even read the newspapers a little; it is Zoé, my maid, who reads to me during lunch. Whereas you, in your rue Sadolet in your solitude, have the joy of having your eyes… Ah! Sight! Sight! Sight!… the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.” – Degas in a letter to friend, Evariste de Valernes, Paris, 6 July, 1891.

From 1870 until his death in 1917, Degas sought the advice of a number of different ophthalmologists. Many theories have been put forward regarding the nature of his problem, including retinal disease, hereditary degeneration, corneal scarring and age-related macular degeneration (ARM). He was diagnosed with “chorioretinitis”, a term then used commonly to describe a variety of eye conditions. Degas’ difficulty in distinguishing colours, sensitivity to light, and scotoma all point to some sort of retinal disease. It is not clear whether his retinopathy was acquired or inherited.

Just a tidbit of interesting info regarding how we see color: Cones are one of three types of photoreceptor cells in the human eye. They are responsible for color vision. It is a huge simplification for this particular post, but basically red, green, and blue. Sea creatures can see thousands or millions more colors with many more cones. Roughly 2% of females have an extra color cone. More on that in a later post.

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