About 8 percent of male human beings, and a much smaller 0.5 percent of females, have some form of color vision deficiency, commonly called “color blindness”, in which the perception of colors is limited or altered in some way compared to the general population.
It has been suggested at times that Vincent van Gogh’s unusual use of some colors, particularly yellows and greens, was related to a visual problem, perhaps brought on by lead poisoning from paint, or treatment for temporal lobe epilepsy with a drug known as digitalis, both of which can cause visual alterations.
Kazunori Asada, who has degrees in both medical science and media design and is the developer of the Chromatic Vision Simulator software that allows those with normal color vision to explore various kinds of color vision deficiencies, has written an article on his blog entitled The Day I Saw Van Gogh’s Genius in a New Light, that explores the possibility that Van Gogh may have had a particular type of mildly limited color vision called protanomal color vision.
Asada was inspired to explore this possibility by a visit to the “Color Vision Experience Room” at and event at the Hokkaido Color Universal Design Organization. In the exhibit, objects on display under filtered light designed to simulate color deficiencies included reproductions of some of Van Gogh’s paintings.
He then attempted to use his software to examine some similar reproductions and was unsatisfied with the result, but after some adjustment, he arrived at a new version in which a more limited degree of color deficiency was possible to simulate.
In images accompanying his article, which I have referenced above, he first shows some of Van Gogh’s paintings as they normally appear (above, top and left) side by side with a simulation of their appearance to someone with protanomal color vision.
He emphasizes that Van Gogh may or may not have had these limitations, but the theory is an interesting one, and Asada says that it reinvigorated his already deep appreciation for Van Gogh’s work.