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One Hundred Million Colors - Perspectives No. 309

One Hundred Million Colors

Perspectives No. 309


Image Showing Filters Used to Create Artificial Tetrachromacy
Special filters splitting the blue spectrum show the effect of the glasses.
The bottom lens in the image is unfiltered.
Credit: Brad Gundlach, Greg Vershbow, Mikhail Kats


   We are constantly trying to hone our vision as artists—to recognize subtle tone and value differences in the subjects we are painting and to see and differentiate colors clearly. Although it is thought that we see almost one million colors, we see only a small number of the hues that make up the visible spectrum.

   We've written before, about the science of the human eye, and, how our three types of photo receptors, or cones, allow us to see in a trichromatic color space of red, green and blue. There are those rare few who are born with an extra retinal cone (tetrachromats), allowing them to see one hundred million hues. We have fantasized about what their vision must be like.

   Now, physicists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to trick the three-channeled eyes that most of us have into seeing in four channels, more like the rare tetrachromat. Professor Mikhail Kats, along with his team, began their work by focusing on the cone that allows us to see blues. They designed two separate filters, one for each eye and put them into a pair of glasses. Each filter removes a specific part of the blue light spectrum, thereby allowing different spectral information to enter each eye. To the test subjects, the blocks of color they were shown looked identical without the glasses, but revealed their differences with glasses on. Because our eyes are unable to pick out every single wavelength of a color, we lump together very similar hues of a color. The glasses Kats developed allowed the researchers to differentiate many subtler variations of color in the blues of butterfly wings, in one test.

   Kats and his team plan to follow through by working on the green photo receptor next. He speculates that practical applications for the glasses might include seeing camouflaged objects, noting the changes on the surfaces of vegetables and/or fruits as they begin to spoil and identifying counterfeit currency.

   We can't help but wonder how it might change our perceptions and our paintings—one hundred million colors!

   The paper by the University of Wisconsin team is published here:  https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1703/1703.04392.pdf

   Related articles for members of The Artist's Road:  Butterfly Vision, The Island of the Colorblind, The Purkinje Effect, The Blue Shift

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About Us
Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 35 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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We are also regular contributors to the Plein Air blog at Artist Daily.

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