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The Colorful World of Tetrachromacy


By Jill Pilaroscia

A wonderful ballet of reds, blues, and greens choreographs the rich colors we experience in both our natural and built environments.

This art of color recognition is founded in neuroscience.

The average human eye contains three cone cells embedded within the retina. These cones register light at different wavelengths, which transmit data to the brain. Here they combine, resulting in the phenomenon we know as color.

The human eye can register millions of colors, which makes the world a delightful playground for artists and colorists like us. But what if we are limited by our three cones—and the world is actually more colorful than we know?

gailardia flower
Courtesy of Dr. Klaus Schmidt

A gailardia flower is shown in simulated tetrachromatic vision.

A rare condition known as tetrachromacy has proved that the millions of colors the average human eye can see are just the tip of the rainbow.

A mutation found in almost 12 percent of women, tetrachromacy is the condition of possessing an additional cone in the retina, which is more sensitive to the color scale between red and green.

This allows these individuals to see up to 100 times as many colors as the rest of us who possess only three cones. Recent research has shown that these women tend to excel in the fields of design and visual arts.

rudbeckia flower-tetra sim
Courtesy of Dr. Klaus Schmitt

A rudbeckia flower is seen in visible light (top) and with simulated tetrachromatic vision (bottom).

Color is extremely personal. There is no way to know if the shade of green one person sees is exactly the same as what another sees. (See the 2012 BBC report, "Do we all see the same colours?")

For this reason, tetrachromats have difficulty explaining how the colors they see differ from those seen by trichromats (people with three cones).

However, artist Concetta Antico, who genetically tests positive and is a research subject for tetrachromacy, is making strides in this area. Her vibrant paintings depict prismatic scenes where light and color form dynamic illustrations of everyday objects.

Eucalyptus study
Courtesy of Jill Pilaroscia

Concetta Antico's tetrachromatic painting of a eucalyptus tree is shown with the original scene.

Even with three cones, the eye sometimes needs to be trained to see the full spectrum of colors. The same applies to women with tetrachromacy.

Not all cases of the mutation allow the subject to experience this "superhuman vision."

However, some scientists believe that women who possess the ability to function tetrachromatically may be ahead of human evolution.

One day, maybe all of us will be able to live in a colorful tetrachrome world.


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Colour Studio Inc.; Consultants; Designers; North America

Comment from Mary Nolte, (5/11/2015, 10:53 PM)

color is AMAZING

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/13/2015, 8:15 AM)

Research is close on curing standard colorblindness, would not be a big leap to getting tetrachromat upgrades too...

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