Did Van Gogh have protanomal color deficiency?

Did Van Gogh have protanomal color deficiency? From an article by Kazunori Asada
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.

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18 Replies to “Did Van Gogh have protanomal color deficiency?”

  1. also his blues and pinks and every other color are used exceptionally well ..

    my take, standing in front of his paintings, is that his kundalini opened partially in the last years of his life … those colors are the colors a mystic sees ..

  2. Pretty fascinating that we are able to see what Van Gogh may have seen in colors. The bottom two paintings show a dramatic difference in the colors of sky and building.
    Wonder if he ever got funny looks from others, maybe his brother Theo?, for (inaccurately) describing the colors he painted.

    This simulator reminds me of another I saw, and had to go back and look up again since it’s been a while. A site that shows the same, allowing us to see what others with color vision deficiency see.
    Color Scheme Designer by Peter Stanicek

  3. Interesting.
    Myself, I’m also color blind. Failed most tests I’ve tried, you know those kinds where you are supposed to see numbers in a color freckled area. I Seldom see as much of a hint of a number in those..
    This used to get me a bit down, since I want to become a good painter of life..
    But I do not think about this “handicap” that much anymore, since there is not anything I can do about it. Fortunately, values are more important than the colors.

    I’ve always preferred tonal paintings like Rembrandt’s over the later colorist’s ones, maybe my color blindness contributes to that.

  4. Sorry but I don’t get this theory. Even if he saw colors in a different way, we would not know.
    He would have painted choosing colors the way they looked TO HIM, but they would have been fateful to the ones in the world around him because HE saw them that way.
    But to us, the colors would appear just fine because the painter has just copied them, even if using his own filters.
    Can this be correct?

    1. I think the suggestion is that his limited color deficiency would have caused him to choose different colors to represent what he saw than someone else might have; and that, in effect, those with full color vision are actually the ones who are limited in this case, unable to see the paintings as he saw them.

      1. I agree that Rembrandt and earlier painters, who often worked with what we would consider a limited palette, heavy in earth tones and missing the artificial pigment discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries, are an interesting addition to the discussion of what artists can accomplish with a limited range of colors.

  5. I understand what luca is saying. If he saw a forest green building as cad yellow, would he then choose the color by name, cad yellow, or by the color he has on his palette, forest green, that looks like cad yellow to him?

    If he chooses by the color on his palette that looks the same as the building to him he would actually be painting with the correct color, to normal visioned people.

    Interesting conundrum.

  6. Yes, Bill. Exactly what I meant.
    Always wondered what does color blindness mean.
    If my vision is completely shifted (my red is your green, etc) nobody would know because I would just give a wrong name to my colors.

  7. I also wonder about the fact that in all of Theo’s letters and with the contact that Van Gogh had with other artists it was never pointed out. Even a “Hey Vincent that wall over there is not really an ugly yellow, why did you paint it that way?” Or maybe I missed something and it was?

  8. As i mentioned in a earlier post, I am color blind, and tests I’ve taken show that it is the yellow and green I have most trouble with. So I thought it could be interesting to you to hear that I personally see very little difference between the adjusted painting and the original in the examples shown. I really have to look hard to notice the differences. So if I did not know there was a difference between the two, I would easily think they where exactly the same.

    1. Thanks, ben. This is a very helpful comment.

      Those of use who have the more common range of color vision see bright yellow-greens in the grasses at the edge of the water in the canal painting, as well as a somewhat different blue in the sky. Also the small patch of land seen through the gap under the bridge, and the highlight streaks in the water, are distinctly yellow green rather than yellow.

      In the cafe in Arles, the brightly lit cafe front and underside of the awning have distinctly green accents. (For the benefit of other readers, actually not as green as reproduced here, we’re also dealing with the color inaccuracies often inherent in the reproduction of paintings.)

      If the approximation of the color shift, and the theory about Van Gogh’s color vision is correct, you may actually be seeing his paintings as he saw them, unlike those of us with a different range of color vision.

  9. Thank you Charley for describing the differences to me.
    I can actually spot the differences when I know where to really look for them. But for me it is very vague even then.

    By the way, about time I tell you that I think this is a great blog! Been a eager subscriber for years. Hope for many more.

    I recently found out I was spending too much time following all these inspirational art blogs on the net.. Instead of practicing my own art skills. So I concluded I had to do some sacrifices and unsubscribe every blog that was not of the highest priority. Your blog was one of the few that survived the axing.


  10. Fascinating

    I’m not an artist, so I cant’t speak to the discussion of palettes, I can’t identify colors by name (eg.cadmium yellow) or tones. I am not color blind so I can’t speak to how this technology aids people with color vision deficiency.

    Looking at the Cafe as a viewer of art I asked myself which painting did I prefer. At first I my eye was more comfortable with the one on the right, it was normal, perspective perfect. Then I asked myself if I could buy one which one would it be and the answer was the one on the left. The one on the right is so normal it bores me, the perspective end lines so clear it was hard to appreciate the fine details or the painting as a whole. The sky is a blue color of some sort but the more purple sky in Van Gogh’s painting is complementary to the yellow.

    The one on the right is the work of a good technician. The one on the left is a an artist with a vision – so many layers in that word!

    The use of green adds dimension in the forefront, the use of green on the wall led my eye slowly back into the cafe. The green brings out contrast, shadow and counterpoint. Perhaps the green was not that particular green but without it the painting lacks depth of field and frisson -livleiness

    Approaching this as an interesting theory as an art historian, I would argue that his use of color was intentional. He’s using More colors not less.

    His work is technically excellent but his artistry has always been in bending forms, intense color contrast, adding movement. His designs, his brushwork,and choice of perspective are all Van Gogh.

    For example his skies are simply not possible in the normal world and we know it , -he is adding a dimension that provokes an emotional response in me of how it feels at night. I don’t believe he was hallucinating when he painted the sky or color deficient in the manner this compare and contrast opportunity provides. I enjoyed this experience immensely and think it has great value to anyone who wants to appreciate what makes a painting work.

    I have also learned what cadmium yellow looks like.

    Thank you to Charley and the commentators.

  11. Hello everyone. I saw an article about the possibility of Van Gogh possibly being color blind and I was immediately intrigued. It never acured to me that Van Gogh might be color blind but it seems to me to make plenty of sense. I am colorblind and have always wondered why the descriptions of his work never seem to jive with me. I’ve heard things like,”strange color choices” and “really plays with the colors sometimes without regard to realism,” and never found it made sense. The sunflowers look warm and realistic to me. Starry night in so peaceful, if not a little gloomy or sad. Starry night in particular always seemed so calm to me, but seemed to almost startle others when it would come up. I’m not much for studying art, but I know that folks often seem to think I choose strange colors for things, especially when complimenting other colors. And the most compelling point for me is the fact that I’ve been reading tons of articles and looking at lots of these paintings online for awhile now and none of these works compared to the “colorblind” versions looks any different to me. I don’t claim anything here, I just thought some of my input might be interesting to anyone who cares to talk about this subject and I’ve really not seen much input from someone who is colorblind. I also think that because of the varying degrees of color blindness and the types, that I might just be a close fit for his particular deficiency.

    1. Thanks, Heath. That is an interesting clue about seeing no difference in the images. If you’re curious and you search a bit, I think you will find some resources online for investigating various types and degrees of color vision.

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