We continue our conversation with the world’s first tetrachromat artist, Concetta Antico, to find out what it’s like to see all the colors in skin tones, the effects of lighting and resisting the urge to stare at colorful things all day.
Is it hard not to want to just stare at colors all day?
We could get into that. The fact is that I’m sitting here and all I can do is stare at all the colors. I’m captivated by color on a moment-by-moment basis. It completely distracts and fascinates me, it’s part of my daily fare, I can’t get away from it. It’s in everything I look at. Unless I’m sleeping, it’s there and it’s speaking very clearly to me.
When someone with 3 receptors looks at a shadow, they see a few shades of grey. When I look, I see hundreds of greys. Looking at a red rose, I see shades of red, bits of green, lilac, yellow, orange and more. For me, everything is broken into shades. I’m looking at a violet wall right now, but it’s not violet, it’s gold and grey with little bits of green. There are soft subtle transitions of color in everything, it’s like a mosaic.
I had a BBC interview not long ago where they asked me what a day in the life is like. I get up and I can’t help but stare at the sky for a while, stare at the trees, sometimes the curtains will catch my eye, and I’ll stand there staring. I’m dissecting objects with my eyes, and drifting off almost like a color day dream. It’s in everything I do, all of the time.
Scientists have studied me extensively to show how I see. Doctors have found that I have a high luminance factor, which means I can see a lot more color in shadows or at dark in the evening.
Is there a device that could allow you to see what others see?
That’s a scientific question I’m not sure about. I can guess what you see through what people tell me. When we look at something together and I tell them what I see and they say, “I can’t see that.” This is new science, we don’t know everything about it and we are still learning new things every day. It may be an evolution; scientists are not sure what it means to have found a fourth receptor in human beings. There is a lot of discussion on it and it is controversial because it changed all of the color paradigms. It changes the way we know color as it is now. There is a whole new horizon of color out there. What that is going to mean in terms of civilization and human beings and how that is going to evolve, that’s yet to be seen.
At this point it’s pretty conclusive that I have this genotype and that I have spent my life expressing it and have what is considered to be a perfect storm, i.e. the highest potential that scientists have been able to define at this time. I know what it is like to be me and I’m starting to understand the divide. With my art, there is a vibrancy, some describe it as holographic and some have said it vibrates. It is the way the colors are put together. These are actually the colors I am seeing in nature, so to others, it appears more 3 dimensional. My art is a window into what can potentially be seen.
Does skin appear differently to you?
I can tell you that having found out about this had made me think some personal things about myself. I never realized why it was so important to me to never leave the house without makeup, I just thought it was just personal style. Now I realize it’s because of what I see when I look at my skin.
I’ve had people tell me my entire life that I’m pretty and I have perfect skin, asking, “Why do you feel the need to wear so much makeup.” The reality is, I’m not seeing my skin like others are seeing it. I’m seeing every little vein and discoloration, bits of green, colors underneath, muscle, etc. I’m seeing all the translucent factures, the things that are underneath the surface; I’m seeing so much more. And to me, darkness under the eyes or a blemish is tenfold.
I can see how color changes on a person. A good friend of mine came down with cancer and I went with him on the journey to his death. I watched that color change, I could see it very poignantly. I can see when people are blushing or flushing. I can also see a lot of beauty too, so much more beauty in their eyes, the subtle color in their hair, things like that.
Is this why you don’t paint many portraits?
I don’t want to say that is why but it could be. I have painted some portraits that are personal to me, myself and my children. I think I am just more captivated by the beauty in nature, in flowers, water, landscapes, rocks, animals, birds, then I am with humans.
Are there any colors you strongly dislike? Is that a result of your special vision?
There is a lot of bad art out there. The way people put things together is interesting. For example in fashion, you can’t just put a pair of red shoes with a red dress. They don’t match. A lot of times I see someone trying to color coordinate and it’s completely off.
In the home too, the decor can be so unattractive. One example of this was the office of the doctor that first tested me; it was bright orange, bright burnt orange and turquoise. In this tiny office in a medical center, and I walked in and thought, “Wow, let me out of here. How do you work in here?” Obviously it didn’t look to him like it looked to me. I found it very suffocating.
It’s hard to shop and see racks and racks of color. Where do I start? I try to fall across something that catches my eye. I am drawn to certain colors. Sometimes I buy something that doesn’t suit me as well just because I love the color.
All the displays, advertising, etc. in grocery stores, billboards, the commercial stuff, it’s a lot, too much going on with color. I don’t like going to the mall, so to me, online shopping was one of the greatest things made.
What about the effects of lighting?
Absolutely, lighting affects color 100%. You do your makeup in the bathroom and then go into a space with different lighting, suddenly you look pink, or brown, or green; that effect is amplified for me.
Fortunately because of my color vision I am able to define when something is not really the color I want, even under various lighting conditions. In my studio, when I paint, I use natural light. Nothing can beat natural light. I love to paint outdoors because the sun makes things beautiful. The light dictates the colors we see. Whether you are a trichromat or a tetrachromat, when the light changes, the colors change. I just see more variations in those changes.
Even with advances in monitors, is it hard for you to look at color on a computer?
It’s hard on a computer to get the truth of it. I look at things and they are never what they are in reality. My work is a perfect example. You have to see it in person to appreciate it.
Computers can only do so much, television can only do so much, printing presses can only do so much. It’s not unusual to see a Monet painting printed in four different art books that look completely different in each one. Then you see it in person and it’s a completely different painting. You have to see things up close, you have to experience the personal encounter. You can’t really love a panda bear until you see it up-close; you can’t really love things until you see the color, the truth of them.
What are you thoughts on color therapy?
In our world, we try to have things around that help calm us, make us feel better, or that are beautiful. There’s an old quote from William Morris, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I try to surround myself with color that makes me feel good, happy, serene, and I think that works as a tonic, or vitamin, for your mind.
When you are seeing color, it’s a mind’s eye experience, not just an eye experience, so obviously our mind is being affected and that’s where the vitamin theory comes in. What we see is going to have an immediate effect on our emotions, which are what guides our health in many ways. We are ruled by our emotions.
We can’t minimize the importance of vision, it’s all encompassing of everything in our lives. It is such a tragic thing imagining not being able to see; blind people, people who are color deficient, can’t see the beauty that we can see. We take vision so much for granted. It is one of the most beautiful things that we have and if you look at the natural world, other animals, our planet, it guides everything, it makes the world go round. This is why for me, what I surround myself with, what I wear, what I choose to paint, is very important. If you came to my home you would see beautiful soft white (which for me is so much more than just white), lovely soft greens and violets. I bring colors from nature in. People come into my home and they feel like they are outside instead of inside. I have made it that way, because for me, that’s where the true beauty is, in nature. Color is what the planet gave us, that’s the beauty of it.
How do you feel about your gift?
I feel blessed to see color the way I do. It is the cherry on my cupcake to know that I have this gift. And what a gift… could anyone ask for anything better? I’m not overwhelmed by it, I embrace it 100%.
In Part 3 of the series we talk with Concetta about how she uses her gift to teach, learning color theory, why her and Albert Munsell would have gotten along and some favorite color tricks.
You obviously love colour and have the feeling that what you see is more than others, but most of the things you say I could say too. And surely so could the great colourists such as Monet, Chagall, Redon.
I have always wanted my colour sight tested properly, but they just do these blob tests at the options and if you’re not colour blind they send you on your way.
Maybe there are a quite a few more tetrachromic people than is thought, no-one is checking.
I also have a very strong sense of colour and it is a deeply important thing in my life. It seems to me most people have a strange sense of regimentation to the colours they like, and most people seem to love muted colours – at least in the UK. I want sensuality, I want to feel it.
It’s nice to hear someone else for whom colour is so important. Even if you do see more colours, some of us are hot on your heels in the sense of delight.
Well said Adrianne I agree 100%. Even tho im not a tetrachromat.