Concetta Endorsed at Stanford University for the Art of Vision

Exploring Tetrachromacy in the Artist Concetta Antico By Roya Bashier

The question of whether we all see the same colors as one another is a philosophical enigma that will continue to puzzle scientists and philosophers for quite some time. Perceptually, colors are interpreted in the visual cortex of the brain, but color discrimination starts at the retina with our photopigment cones. Humans are trichromats, though we’re now learning we may not all be. Concetta Antico is an Australian-born artist who has been diagnosed as a tetrachromat [1].  Concetta has 4 genetically unique photopigment cones encoded in her DNA and has passed color discrimination tests meant to identify tetrachromats [2]. Concetta’s 4th cone gives her the potential to discriminate up to 100 million different colors compared to 1 million for a trichromat. I conducted a phone interview with Concetta to gain a better understanding of her perception of her tetrachromacy and how it affects her art.

Figure 1: Illustration of peak wavelength sensitivities of the normal 3 cones in humans. The bar at the top depicts the potential region of Concetta’s 4th cone’s peak sensitivity (red-orange-yellow range; source: interview with Concetta Antico).

The condition of tetrachromacy is likely not an uncommon one. Various sources give various estimates, but potentially as many as 12% of women possess a gene for a 4th cone [4], but most of these women don’t pass discrimination tests, indicating that their 4th cone is not very useful or “functional”. Concetta’s case is particularly interesting because of her perceptual experience with color that may have led to her “functional” tetrachromacy. Concetta’s interview was speckled with anecdotes about her pull towards nature as a child, and her love of nature now [1]. The colors that we trichromats can’t perceive aren’t included in our man-made products and color decisions, but nature would provide them readily. Combining immersion in these colors with a higher than normal luminance factor, meaning that Concetta’s retina receives more light than normal [2], and a working understanding of how colors mix based on her experience as an artist, Concetta’s genetic predisposition may have been strengthened by her experiential repertoire. Her luminance factor is particularly compelling since more active cones compared to the average human would make it more plausible that her 4th cone was activated sufficiently in order to become a major player in her color vision (Fig 2d).

Looking at Concetta’s art, it is quite apparent that she uses color in interesting and compelling ways (fig 2). She inserts strokes of color that we wouldn’t normally associate with or expect the presence of in the scene; while peacocks have bright striking colors, we trichromats wouldn’t see so many colors all at once as is portrayed in the painting (fig 2a). But, peacock feathers are known to be iridescent, causing us to see different colors as the reflection of light changes slightly. How many colors might actually be present in those feathers? The water in 2b and 2c has many different gradations of different colors throughout that give it a more dynamic feel, perhaps capturing the dynamic color quality of light reflecting on water in a more apt manner.

Figure 2: Original oil paintings on canvas by Concetta Antico. (a) Peacocks On Parade, Tetrachromat. 2014. 24×48 (b) Reflecting Pool of Narcissistic Love, Vaucluse House, Sydney. 2018. 30×36 (c) For Life – The Swans. 2016. 24×30 (d) Full Moon Magic, La Jolla. 2012. 18×24; This piece may show what Concetta’s night vision might be like. There are far more colors than we would expect to be able to see from moonlight, but with her enhanced luminance factor, she may be able to pick up more colors in dimmer conditions.

Concetta claims that she paints what she sees without embellishment, but in order for us to be able to see how she might be seeing, might embellishments be necessary? Concetta is a self-proclaimed impressionist painter and like any other artist, her style of art has evolved over time [1]. Impressionist painters have the liberty of painting how they interpret the painting rather than trying to exact every detail. This style may have lent itself well to Concetta as her interpretation is more different than other impressionists since her tetrachromacy gives her a different angle of interpretation. Tetrachromacy in theory would lend Concetta with a greater ability to discriminate between very close colors. The perception question lies in what those very close colors would appear as to a tetrachromat compared to a trichromat. This question becomes difficult to answer as we step into perception of the unique individual, but when comparing the stark and seemingly unexpected difference in vision between a dichromat and a trichromat (fig 3), it is not unreasonable to expect differences that are difficult to comprehend between a trichromat and tetrachromat such as the dazzling colors that Concetta paints.

Figure 3: This is a depiction of the difference in color vision between a dichromat (specifically a deuteranope lacking M cones) and a trichromat. Colors that were not present for the dichromat are suddenly present for the trichromat. This can begin to suggest how a tetrachromat’s vision may differ from a trichromat.

Concetta’s paintings employ very many different colors; this is the beginning of her sharing of the experience of being a tetrachromat. Her world appears to be hyper-colored; where we see a leaf of a single color, there may be 10 different colors that Concetta can see in some particular arrangement. This arrangement would likely follow the natural divisions present in the plant or animal modulated by the reflectance of light, entering Concetta’s perception as strokes of perhaps similar but unique colors side-by-side. If she painted those exact colors, we (theoretically) wouldn’t be able to discriminate them. As an artist she is also at liberty to insert those strokes as bright, differentiable colors, and then we begin to see how many colors side by side there are, and through stylistic impressionistic choices perhaps she can begin to share what her experience of being a tetrachromat is like.

[1] Phone Interview. Concetta Antico. March 3, 2018.
[2] Jameson, K.A., Highnote, S.M. & Wasserman, L.M. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (2001) 8: 244.
[3] Jameson, K. A.,  Winkler, A. D.,  & Goldfarb, K. (2016). Art, interpersonal comparisons of color experience, and potential tetrachromacy. Invited Proceedings paper for the 2016 IS&T International Symposium on Electronic Imaging (EI 2016). Technical Session on Human Vision and Electronic Imaging.
[4] Jordan, G. et al. (2010). The dimensionality of color vision in carriers of anomalous trichromacy. Journal of Vision, 10.
Figure 1:
Figure 2: Received by email from Concetta Antico
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