Notes from the Studio

Vision Loss and Artists

We live in an aging society, and whether you are a producing artist or an art instructor, dealing with vision loss will be an increasing challenge.

Cataracts – George Inness and Claude Monet are just two examples of painters who recognized what was happening to their vision and adjusted their colors accordingly.  Cataracts are a thickening of the lens, often grayish-yellow.  They make the whole world look dirty.   Fine detail is obscured.   Worse, color mixing becomes very hard to control.  The artist mixes a nice gray only to hear someone comment on “that purple.”  Pleasing yellows mixed one day look harsh and acidic the next day.

To maintain control over their paintings, Inness and Monet employed similar strategies by reducing color saturation and contrast.  Yellows were toned way down, and purples were generally avoided.  Both artists increased their use of browns and neutral hues.  Value became more important to both.  Understanding how master artists responded to vision impairment can help the rest of us adjust, whether we paint, teach or do both.

Macular Degeneration  -- My newest drawing student is legally blind.  This delightful retired physician has no central vision.  None.  Only peripheral vision remains, and that shrinks as the macula continues to degenerate.  Georgia O’Keeffe and Wolf Kahn continued to paint as macular degeneration advanced.  Kahn insists it made him a better painter.  He opted for larger canvases, less detail and more glowing color.

My student has just picked up art, something he enjoyed as a kid.  We chose charcoal for the first session, and a limited number of dry pastels for the second session.  Working in color was more rewarding for him.  He thoroughly enjoyed the intense color of heavily applied pastels, and using a Wolf Kahn image as reference, was able to detect hue changes (layering) he needed to make.  He really got into it when he discovered that dry pastels could be smudged!

Each eye disease has different implications for artists.  Understanding some basics about eye disease will help artists and instructors devise successful work-arounds.   The alternative, letting creativity die, is unacceptable.

To do research on your own, use your favorite search engine with terms like “cataracts artist” and “macular+degeneration artist”, or whatever eye disease is at issue.  The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art,  by Marmor and Ravin might be useful and is readily available.  Much harder to find, unfortunately, is Art and Ophthalmology, by Philippe Anthony.

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