For One Artist, Colorblindness Opened Up A World Of Black And White After his diagnosis, Peter Milton wasn't about to abandon art; but he did feel he had to abandon color. Today he says he finds black and white to be "fully more elegant than color."

For One Artist, Colorblindness Opened Up A World Of Black And White

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OK. Time to get back in the time machine. We're going to the year 1962. Andy Warhol debuts the silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup cans that will revolutionize the art world. Roy Lichtenstein is at work on his giant paintings in the style of comic strips. Pop art is taking off in a frenzy of color.

And Peter Milton, age 32, is going to get his eyes tested. For our series on color, Angela Evancie of Vermont Public Radio has the story of an artist who's come to terms with not seeing all of those colors.

ANGELA EVANCIE, BYLINE: At the time, Peter Milton was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. And he'd had a show of some of his paintings.

PETER MILTON: And it got reviewed and someone referred to how warm and sort of pinky the landscapes were. And I was horrified.

EVANCIE: Pink was not what Milton thought he'd been laying down on the canvas. So he made an appointment at Johns Hopkins University.

MILTON: It was a brutal test because what they do is they give you 25 - I think that's the number - 25 discs.

EVANCIE: Each disc was a different color of the spectrum from red to violet. And Milton had to put them in order.

MILTON: So I did. And I thought it was fine.

EVANCIE: And then the lab technician started correcting his work.

MILTON: She started moving all the pieces around and substituting and putting some farther down the scale and others up. It was a massive redoing.

EVANCIE: The diagnosis - red-green colorblindness, or deuteranopia. This on top of the nearsightedness that Milton had known about since he was a kid.

MICHAEL MARMOR: Peter Milton does not have total colorblindness, but it's fairly severely.

EVANCIE: Michael Marmor is a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University and co-author with James Ravin of "The Artist's Eyes: Vision And The History Of Art."

MARMOR: 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 are 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.

MILTON: The way you could see my green would be to take a neutral gray and put some yellow into it.

EVANCIE: As for reds, Peter Milton says the color maroon looks like mud. Now 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."

MILTON: I was told at one point, maybe a couple of years later, that he thought very highly of my work. And this is very bizarre because I'm the colorblind person. He's the color guru.

EVANCIE: Milton wasn't going to abandon art. But he did feel he had to abandon color. And so he embraced black and white.

MILTON: Now you have to watch your head there.

EVANCIE: In 1969, he and his family moved to a big yellow house in Francestown, New Hampshire.

MILTON: This was a former hay barn from the carriage days. These are now where all my prints are kept in storage.

EVANCIE: 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. Ballerina's and men on bicycles and dogs and children float in and out of ornate train stations and cafes. They are visual puzzles and 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.

MILTON: Went right to it.

EVANCIE: Take the engraving called "Mary's Turn." It was inspired by a photograph by turn-of-the-century artist Gertrude Kasebier. In her picture, a woman is 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.

MILTON: So she's playing this magical game and characters from her paintings have all assembled and come and watched her play the game.

EVANCIE: The painter Edgar Degas, who had a fraught relationship with Cassatt is also looking on.

MILTON: Looking very puzzled because all these billiard balls are now floating in the air, and there's light flooding in from some sources, but mostly it's in shadow.

EVANCIE: The whole thing has sort of graininess to it almost like it's a grainy black and white photograph. Is that what you were going for or a different quality?

MILTON: It's really an examination of not having color anymore, of using tonal and texture as your medium. Black and white's almost more elegant. Maybe it's fully more elegant than color, and less color is used with great elegance in itself.

EVANCIE: Interesting side note - both Cassatt and Degas also had eye problems, says Michael Marmor of Stanford.

MARMOR: Degas probably had a congenital retinal problem. And he had progressive visual loss spanning about 40 years. Mary Cassatt had a different problem. She developed cataracts fairly late in her life.

EVANCIE: Claude Monet also had cataracts, and he eventually lost 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've heard the theory that Van Gogh was colorblind. That one's actually not true.

MARMOR: He used vibrant greens in many paintings, 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.

EVANCIE: Michael Marmor says that, like Peter 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.

MILTON: No, I don't miss color. I mean, 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 going to choose? So something has to help you make the choice.

EVANCIE: Or as Edgar Degas put it, I'm 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. For NPR News, I'm Angela Evancie.

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