‘What colour is this?’ they used to say. Well, even at that early age I knew it was a dumb question. What looks green to you may look orange to someone else. One colour seen differently by two different people but given the same name. I never really thought it was important.
I sailed through art ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in two years after a brief meandering into ceramics. I found I was more interested in form and light and shade. When I used colour it was big and bold, a part of a graphic design rather than an attempt at reality. I fell in love with mechanical image making – etching and then photography. I enjoyed the marriage of technology, chemistry and physics in the service of art.
I had my own temporary darkroom in the downstairs toilet at Mum and Dad’s home – special lightproofing over the window, a removable shelf on which the photographic enlarger and the trays of chemicals rested. Saturday afternoons would find me exploring the magic of image making. That first portfolio got me an offer of a place at Art College on the day of the interview.
A couple of terms into the course they gave us a colour vision test using dots of colour that made specified patterns if you had full colour vision. My tutor picked up that I had some colour deficiency, but it was ‘nothing to worry about’. I completed the course two years later with the highest marks in my year.
I worked in science and medical photography where colour adjustments were done on a scientific basis using colour control strips and sophisticated ‘transmission densitometers’ (remember, these were the days of what is now referred to as ‘wet technology’ – pre-computer). Colour balance was never a matter of opinion.
Further on in my career I had an interview for the BBC who were recruiting camera operatives. It was then that I was informed that I was unsuitable as my colour vision was badly defective in the red-green area of the spectrum. I was shocked. My livelihood was based on the way I could capture and re-present images. This news was not welcome, and something I would not wish to share with my employers. So I developed ways of compensating for my deficiency, always being careful to measure and numerically quantify colour balance. I even ended up looking after the department’s E6 (colour transparency) processing, but still feeling I must be missing out on something.
Then in the early days of the internet I came across a website run by a medical company that might be able to help me. Based in the Wirral, they were making contact lenses that compensated for defective colour vision such as mine. The theory was that if you put a contact lens which was coloured with the opposite hue to your deficiency in your less-dominant eye then you could regain some colour differentiation. I was intrigued to try it.
We made an appointment to visit the clinic and made the long journey there, planning to spend a couple of days to explore the area as well. On the morning of the appointment I arrived to find a small group of people with similar difficulties to my own. I spoke at some length to a graphic designer who had hidden his defective colour vision by using a system of coloured felt-tip pens. When it was my turn, I went in to see the technician who did a few tests and confirmed the areas of the spectrum I had difficulty discriminating. He gave me a trial magenta contact lens to use in my left eye with the instruction to go to a nearby garden centre.
My wife drove the car as I needed to become used to wearing the lens and getting comfortable with its effect. As we got nearer the garden centre I became more accommodated to it, as well as the strange side-effect of enhanced stereoscopic vision if I looked sideways out of the passenger window at the countryside as it flew past. Even on that cold, grey November day I was starting to see different shades of greens as we drove, but nothing could prepare me for what was to follow.
We walked through the main entrance area and on to the shop floor. Right in front of me was a display of seed packets already on display ready for early spring planting. You know the sort – the ones with photographs of the flowers in all their multicoloured glory on the front. The shock I felt at seeing these bright colours was like a physical body-blow. My mind felt overpowered with the richness of the experience, my eyes started to water and I had to look away from the display to rest them. I stumbled on into the next sales area. Those who know garden centres in the UK in November will know that there is a plant sold at that time of year to decorate our houses as the seasons move towards Christmas. Poinsettias have rich, deep red leaves and I was standing transfixed in front of a vast greenhouse display. I had to take a couple of breaths to recover from the shock. This time, my poor, sore eyes were running with tears as they struggled with overload.
I left the garden centre numbed with the shock of the experience, and the realisation of what other people saw and took for granted in their everyday lives. I had tasted visual reality and it had changed the way I looked at things forever.
Here’s the point of this blog: Sometimes what we see is not the whole reality. Take the episode in the Second Book of Kings in the Bible when the King of Syria wants to capture the prophet Elisha and sends a vast army to surround the city of Dothan. Elisha’s young servant sees this and is frightened. Elisha tells him ‘those who are with us are more than those who are with them’. Elisha then prays to God ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see’ and the young man can see that Elisha was being protected by many ‘horses and chariots of fire’ sent from the Lord. The Syrian army was then led away to another place and dissuaded from taking further action. By being shown hospitality – not by being engaged in battle. Not the expected outcome, but Elisha’s vision gave him the insight to see and know the protective power of the Lord.
Sometimes we forget that there are things ordained by God going on beyond our comprehension around us, that if we could just have the vision we too would be numbed by the experience of being able to see these things. Our eyes would run and our minds would be overloaded. And we would not see life in the same way again.
O Lord, open our eyes!