Emily Parnell — The colors of my world are not like those of my son’s

10/29/2013 12:00 AM

10/29/2013 3:48 PM

Do you think much about color? Right now, trees are exploding in crimsons, tangerines and golds, vibrant like lollipops against the clear blue sky. It’s nature’s last show of bright colors before landscapes fade to subtle variations of browns and beige, which will then be covered by shimmering blankets of pristine white.

Nothing gets you thinking about color quite like picking out paint, and we’ve been making the granddaddy of all color decisions: what color to paint the outside of the house. Every pocket of my purse is stuffed with paint chips. Swatches and color scheme examples are piled on counters and tables throughout the house. We’ve discussed and hashed and over-thought and thrown all care to the wind. And finally, we picked.

My husband and I have been a successful color-picking duo for our entire history together. Neither of us fears color, or experimentation with color, so when one of us decides that we just MUST see what a huge orange amoeba on a sapphire blue background will look like on the living room wall, we are miraculously able to share and agree upon the same vision. (If you’re wondering, it looked awesome, but we painted over it when we sold the place.)

I’ve been thinking so much of color, in fact, that I bought a new book, “The Secret Language of Color,” written by a mother-daughter duo that talks about the science, culture and art of color. Our family has pored through its many pages of imagery and prose unveiling layer upon layer of beauty and significance of colors throughout history. Every page holds our attention as it educates and delights the eye, but the most interesting pages for me have been those on colorblindness, a disability of distinguishing certain colors.

I was somewhat surprised when the school nurse called one day saying that our son is a little bit color-blind. I stopped in after school, and she demonstrated his inability to pick an orange shape that was camouflaged within a teal-blue blob. He couldn’t see it. The colors all looked the same to him. Color blindness actually runs in the women on my side of the family. My grandmother, who loved fun vibrant shades, matching her personality, was color-blind. She’d often show up wearing clashing concoctions of wild hues, a product of her artistic nature combined with her (inaccurate) belief that her clothing actually matched.

Our new color book has several pages with the tests used to identify color blindness. Curious, I turned to them and asked my son what he saw.

“Circles,” he said.

I pointed to a green one. “What color is this?” I asked him.

“Green,” he said. He then accurately identified an orange one. I was beginning to think that maybe he’d outgrown his condition.

“But,” he added, “if you look at them really fast, they do look alike. I can see how someone would think these two colors were the same. But I looked carefully, so I can tell.”

I can’t fathom a world where orange and green look alike. Can you tell when the leaves change color? I wish I knew which of the two colors he was actually seeing.

When my husband and I finally arrived upon our color for the house, a serene sage green, our son looked at it with disgust. “You can’t paint the house that color! I hate that color,” he said.

“How can he hate green?” my husband asked. But it occurred to me, it’s a nebulous color for him. He may see our house as orange. So, in the question of house color, the 9-year-old color-blind kid didn’t get a vote. But he certainly did provoke colorful thoughts.

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