Colourblind Designers – A Hidden Blessing

Jacqueline Duncan, OBE

I recall an interesting conversation which took place long ago between an ex RAF officer and a designer, both of them colour blind.   The officer, Peter Dudgeon, had recently founded an upholstery business, and in doing so had extended his knowledge of colour, its versatility and the surprising effects that could be achieved by its manipulation.

The RAF roundel for example, he assured designer Michael Inchbald, looks as if the colours are all exactly similar in proportion to each other but they are not – the white, which to the normal eye spreads and thus looks larger by comparison, is slightly reduced to give conformity to the whole.   Peter claimed that it had been devised by a colour blind artist (and yes, they do exist!).

The conversation led on to the fascination of camouflage, used so extensively in nature and adapted by man, sometimes for protection and at other times extended to decoration in the form of trompe l’oeil, a painting skill devised to ‘deceive the eye’.   Where camouflage  is concerned, the “handicap” of colour blindness becomes a desirable skill.   Colourblind personnel were recruited in war to design the patterns, and indeed to detect those of the enemy, since the fact of colourblindness indicates a totally different perception of what appears to be the fact observed by normal vision.

Until the end of the 19th century the English army wore scarlet, and were known as redcoats for that reason – it is said that the colour choice did not show the blood!    Red, an aggressive colour in itself, is a subliminal alert to danger, and several hundred scarlet clad soldiers bearing down on their opponents would in itself be a daunting sight.   Interestingly, the gunners wore blue, a colour similar to their weapons and one that would draw less attention to their position.   The guns were not only vital but very expensive.   To a colourblind observer, however, both men and guns would be individually visible.

Scarlet morphed to green and finally around 1902, to the familiar khaki of modern warfare.  This in turn led to the development of military camouflage as we know it, widely used throughout the first and second world wars to obscure and confuse, unless of course, the opposing officer was colour blind himself!

In decoration, the skills of trompe l’oeil artists have been extensively deployed to confuse and deceive the observer, using both painterly and architectural talents.   Wallpaper manufacturers such as Zuber, have taken advantage of this style to produce paper panels that can transform a small room into a garden, or offer an amazing vista on a featureless wall.   And the violin, hung rather nonchalantly with its bow on a paneled door in Chatsworth, is in fact painted on to the door, over the paneling.   The first time I saw this I was astonished to discover that the violin and its shadow were no more than flat paint.

The Chatsworth House violin, which ‘hangs’ from the back of the door to the State Music Room. The trompe l’oeil was painted by Jan van der Vaardt (c.1650-1727).  Photo Diane Naylor © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.  Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

Colour, space, light can all be manipulated to provoke the imagination, or even provide a gentle joke!