Creative Color
April 21, 2011 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Are tetrachromats more prevalent and successful in the fashion industry and art world? Are there groups of trichromats who are overrepresented in artistic endeavors on the whole?

The other day, my boss got to talking about tetrachromats, people who have the physical ability to discern a greater range of colors by having retinas with four types of cone cells, instead of the usual three (excepting color-blind individuals). He also talked about the variance in cone cell type ratios in European trichomats (something like 40% variance in ratios, compared with 10% in non-Europeans).

He stated that there was a overrepresentation of tetrachromats who work in the fashion industry, but from what the Wikipedia article claims, there have been very few actual tetrachromats identified.

So my questions are: Who is right? Are tetrachromats statistically overrepresented (relatively "enriched", perhaps, to use an informatics term) in creative fields, like art and fashion? In the larger population of trichromats, have there been any (genomic) studies about visual artists, their particular sensory apparatus, and (loosely grouped) art movements that might emphasize certain color schemes?

Pointers to studies or researchers working on this would be ideal. Thanks!
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (7 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure that this is an answerable question as yet. Wikipedia tells me that the sample size is really just two individuals, both as yet unverified:
Further studies will need to be conducted to verify tetrachromacy in humans. Two possible tetrachromats have been identified: "Mrs. M," an English social worker, was located in a study conducted in 1993,[8] and an unidentified female physician near Newcastle, England, was discovered in a study reported in 2006.[7] Neither case has been fully verified.
So of the two suspected tetrachromats in the world, neither are in the fashion industry. Gathering a large enough sample size of (even unverified) tetrachromats would be necessary to speak on whether they are overrepresented in artistic industries.

My bias would be no. Color is important, but so is shape and style and context and texture. Fashion is art for an audience and I believe that being able to see millions more colors than your average human might actually be a burden, rather than a gift.
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:00 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you spend a few straight days intensively concentrating on color, like color-correcting film scenes on screens in a darkened room, your color acuity will be dramatically enhanced for a time, even in the "outside" world. I would think that the difference in abilities between someone regularly immersed in color judgments, and someone not, is so great that it might overwhelm differences due to variations in native ability.

Also, the opportunity to creatively control color is technically constrained, so I'm not sure how anyone would exercise those abilities other than observing nature. Certainly not by observing tri-stimulus computer monitors.

With perfect pitch, which is somewhat of a predictor of musical activities, the special ability helps judge attributes that can still be perceived by others who are less facile. Tetrachromats might well have no way to communicate about it with most people they are likely to have met.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:03 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there any evidence that a tetrochromats' perception of color would be more "accurate" (as measured by a standard observer)? It seems to me that there's a high likelihood that perceiving UV would not be beneficial (as no one else can see it).
posted by speedgraphic at 6:06 PM on April 21, 2011

speedgraphic, for the record: tetrachromats don't see further into the spectrum than anyone else.

There are two kinds of red-sensing cones possible, genetically. The genes for this difference are carried by women only (on the Y-chromosome), and therefore a tetrachromat is a woman who inherited both kinds of red-cone gene. One of the kinds is rather rare, so Y-Y' women are kind of rare.

The only superpower it grants (AFAIK) is greater differentiation in distinguishing red colors. That is, two shades of vermillion that look identical to most of us would look slightly different to a tetrachromat.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:52 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

speedgraphic is referring to the UV visual pigment which we lost long long ago in our evolutionary history, the possible occurrence of a four pigment retina in this question is different, but the point is still interesting.

We don't see wavelengths, we see colours, blends of different levels of stimulation of our three colour pigments. This is why your monitor can make so many colours with only three colours. We can't tell the difference between a single yellow wavelength, and the right mix of red and green.

If you had more visual pigments than I do perhaps you would be able to make this distinction.

In some ways this would be a terrible disadvantage, you couldn't see full colour on a computer monitor, red and green would stay separate, they would not blend into yellow.
posted by compound eye at 7:50 AM on April 22, 2011

well you couldn't see full colour on my computer monitor, but perhaps you could have one specially made for you
posted by compound eye at 7:51 AM on April 22, 2011

you couldn't see full colour on a computer monitor, red and green would stay separate, they would not blend into yellow.

They'd still blend, but you'd see different yellows.

R1+G yellow would be different from R2+G yellow, which would be a little different from G+R1+R2 yellow. Spectral yellow (a single wavelength) would look different from yellow on a computer, which would presumably be R1+R2+G. To the rest of us, they're all R+G. The same would apply to oranges, browns, olive greens, purples, fuchsias. R1 red, R2 red and R1+R2 red would be different colors rather than slight variations in brightness (though not necessarily very strikingly different because the colors would overlap a lot).

Colors on a computer screen would seem somewhat flat to tetrachromats compared to the full range of color they can see in real life because the same mixture of R1 and R2 is always used for R. We get certain amount of that. The wavelength used for green on computer monitors, selected for maximum sensitivity, also stimulates red cones to some extent, making light-primary blue a really bright color and teals kind of washed out, because G+B is always really B+G+r on a monitor. As a result there are intense blue-greens that you can occasionally see in nature that aren't representable digitally, because result pure wavelengths that only stimulate blue and green cones or just green, without stimulating red at all. Tetrachromats would get that a lot.

My initial question was whether the brains of tetrachromats can actually adjust to process information from four types of receptors instead of three separately, but Jameson, Highnote & Wasserman's paper seems to indicate they can. Neat!

A second question I'd have is do tetrachromats have different ideas about what colors match and don't? Complimentary colors stimulate opposing sets of receptors, and are widely used in art, fashion and decoration because combining them simultaneously gives a sense of balance and contrast. In a trichromatic system, B is the compliment of RG - blue is the compliment of yellow. In a tetrachromatic system you get B - R1R2G. Blue is still the compliment of yellow. But R1 is the is compliment of R2GB, and R1GB is the compliment of R2, where R2GB and R1GB are indistinguishable variations of grey, silver, or greyish white, and, to the rest of us, R1 and R2 are only distinguishable as reds with slight variations in brightness, and slight differences in brownness or orangeness.

I'm wondering if this has something to do with the discrepancies between traditional color-matching systems and the system of optical primaries. Traditionally, the compliment of red is green but optically (in terms of the light-primary system used on monitors) the compliment of red is teal/cyan and the compliment of green is purple.
posted by nangar at 11:04 AM on April 22, 2011

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