What it’s like for an artist to suddenly see color

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When he first got his new glasses, the 37-year-old American artist Daniel Arsham recalled, “I just spent a lot of time looking at grass.”

Arsham is colorblind, and that has been a defining theme of his work over the past decade. His sculptures are typically black, white, or shades of grey. Even his outfits are monochrome. “I’ve just generally been turned off from color,” he told Quartz.

Instead he has focused on the texture of his materials, such as volcanic ash or crystal. He once used 200 pounds of shattered glass to create a life-size statue of the rapper and singer Pharrell Williams, and he made a black-and-white film with the actor James Franco. The artist also likes to transform the flat white walls of museums into billowing sheets with people behind them.

“As an artist, within my work, I didn’t think about the lack of color as being even part of my practice,” he said. “Perhaps I was more drawn to them because I knew that in their lack of color, I was able to see them the way that everyone else would see them.”

But this changed in 2015, when Arsham received a pair of special glasses that allowed him to see more color.

Arsham has a specific condition called deuteranopia. He can see color, but his eyes are unable to detect red and green hues. For example, his perception of the changing leaves during autumn is flat and muted compared to someone with full vision. The human eye is made up of millions of retinal cones, which are sensitive to three colors: red, green, and blue. These cones work together and overlap to create the entire color spectrum. Colorblindness happens when one or more of these cones are damaged (in Arsham’s case, the “green” cones). 

Arsham’s new glasses enhance greens and reds, opening up a variety of new colors for him to see. It’s not a permanent fix, but an artificial correction.

In the past year, Arsham has begun to roll out surprisingly colorful pieces: intense cobalt blue statues and a room filled with saturated purple volleyballs. His latest piece is a vibrant pink Japanese rock garden.

Arsham finds the glasses distracting to wear all the time, and prefers to use them as a creative tool.

“Even though I may be able to identify a wider range of color with these lenses, there’s still an open question as to whether I’m seeing what you see, or what other people see, and that opens up a larger question about objectivity and color,” he says. “With the perspective of the lenses, I was able to see and say, ‘OK, this is a color that I actually know, and that I can actually see as others see it.’ Therefore, I feel as if I can use it in my work the same way I can use white or black.”