What It’s Like to See 100 Million Colors

By
What It’s Like To See 100 Million Colors
“The grocery store and the mall are a color assault. There’s too much of everything and too much that is not naturally beautiful.”
Collages by Eugenia Loli

Tetrachromats can see colors that most people cannot — up to 100 million, estimates suggest, which is 100 times that of the average human. Most people have three cells, or receptors, in their retinas, but tetrachomats have a fourth receptor, which may be what allows for their heightened color perception. They are usually female, and it’s estimated that about 12 percent of women carry the gene for this fourth receptor. Carrying the gene doesn’t guarantee that you’ll wind up with heightened color vision, but those who both have the gene and who are immersed in a wide range of colors from a very young age appear to be more likely to develop the ability. Researchers are still in the very early stages in their understanding of this condition, so there aren't any hard numbers on how often it manifests itself.

Concetta Antico, a tetrachromat artist and oil-painting teacher from San Diego, recently spoke with Science of Us about her hyper-charged color perception.

How would you describe what you see?

I see colors in other colors. For example, I’m looking at some light right now that’s peeking through the door in my house. Other people might just see white light, but I see orange and yellow and pink and green and some magenta and a little bit of blue. So white is not white; white is all varieties of white. You know when you look at a pantone and you see all the whites separated out? It’s like that for me, but they are more intense. I see all those whites in white but I resolve all these colors in the white, so it’s almost like a mosaic. They are all next to each other but connected. As I look at it, I can differentiate different colors. I could never say that’s just a white door, instead I see blue, white, yellow-blue, gray. 

Can you describe how something very familiar to everyone with ordinary color perception looks to you?

Let’s take mowed grass. Someone who doesn’t have this genetic variation might see bright green, maybe lights or darks in it. I see pinks, reds, oranges, gold in the blades and the tips, and gray-blues and violets and dark greens, browns and emeralds and viridians, limes and many more colors — hundreds of other colors in grass. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing.  

What about rain and snow or rainbows?

Snow is very colorful. Just think of many pastel colors. That’s what I see in white snow, like a white opal. Rainbows are breathtaking — they contain hundreds of subtle colors. I can stare for ages and not see them all.  That’s also what it’s like when I look at water and rain and snow and fog.

What was your childhood like?

Color was very important to me. I grew up in Sydney, Australia, where the light is quite unique. I was captivated by its flora and fauna, and I wanted to illustrate that from a very young age. My mom passed away when I was 12. My childhood was almost a rural experience — the area we lived in wasn’t very built up, and I spent a lot of time in the bush and playing in mud and muck and with frogs in ponds.

I was interested in impressionists and post-impressionists, and I started reproducing Cézannes when I was about 7 or 8. I studied the masters using old Reader’s Digests. But I’d also copy the covers of my favorite record albums by bands like Yes or Status Quo. I often tell a story about a time in preschool when I painted a big old wooden fence with water. I was captivated because I could see so many colors in the liquid. It was like I was painting rainbows. 

The water was colorful?

When the light reflects on it I see all these blues and yellows and pinks and grays. All the colors are very pronounced.

I’m curious to know what your mother’s funeral was like: Did you see color in the black?

They didn’t let my sister and I attend because we were children and that was the way things were back then. They shielded us from that, and it’s a real sore point for me. But I do see color in black. I am a veritable Fandex of color, and when I look at one black, it’s like a full Munsell of “blacks.” Black colored birds like crows, ravens, and starlings are my favorite. I see violets, blues, and emeralds in their feathers. I am passionately in love with these colors.  

When did you have a sense that you were different?

I didn’t know I was a tetrachromat until about two years ago, but when I was younger I could tell I was incredibly unique. I was always nominated to do art projects and I was often singled out for my talents. I won the senior art prize when I was a few years below the other competitors. I was always the art teacher’s favorite. I’ve recently had a lot of people from elementary school find me on social media and they all say that they remember me, and that I was “different.” People who have been around me find it very obvious that this special vision ability, in combination with my own intelligence, has made me a little above other people.

What does skin look like to you?

It’s multicolored. If someone’s blushing it’s very bright. I can tell if someone is sick just by looking at them. Their skin gets gray, it gets yellow, and there’s some green. I can tell when my daughter is sick because she will be all washed out and greenish-yellow or maybe whitish-lilac. 

Did you have pimples when you were younger? I’m curious if they were amplified at all.

I did, and I was very self-conscious because it was so exaggerated to me — it was like I had a multicolored Vesuvius on my face. So I’ve leaned toward makeup as a way of leveling out all that color in my skin that other people wouldn’t worry about. I feel like I have to put concealer and powder on my face because every vein and blemish is so visible. I guess the fact that I see more color in skin is why I’ve never liked going out without makeup on. People ask why I always wear makeup.  They say I look good without it, but I can see in all the veins the red and the blue. I see too much. 

Can you tell the story of how you came to understand your condition?

About seven years ago, one of my former students emailed me. The subject line was “I think you’re one of these.” This was the first time I had ever heard the word tetrachromat. I emailed him back and was like, yeah, me and everybody else. And he was like, No, no, you see colors that I don’t see. But he was color-blind, so I just figured he can’t see colors anyway. I printed out the article and I just filed it away. 

A few years went by and my 8-year-old daughter came home from school saying she was having trouble seeing the whiteboard, especially when the teacher wrote in orange. I took her to the doctor and asked for a color vision test. I really had to argue to get him to do it, because she’s a girl. He determined that she was color blind and that was a very traumatic day for her. She’s painted with me in the studio since she was 5.

A year or two goes by and a neurologist comes to take oil painting classes with me and she said there was a special alchemy in my work, she couldn’t really explain it, but it was all to do with color. I explained that a lot of people think my color perception is extraordinary. She didn’t say anything but a few days later she sent me an email. 

I will never forget it. It had six or seven attachments. I open one of these articles and the first couple of paragraphs explains that women who possess the genetics of tetrachromacy have the potential to produce a color-blind female offspring. I Googled all the names of the doctors who were cited in the article. That’s the other thing, this era. If it hadn’t been for the internet I probably wouldn’t have found any of this out.

I emailed them immediately. My subject line was “possible fourth receptor artist with color blind daughter.” The keywords, as I found out later, were artist and color-blind daughter. As they tell me, I’m the perfect storm for tetrachromacy. It all happened so fast. I’m now being studied at UC Irvine by Dr. Kimberley Jameson and her colleagues. 

How did you feel when you realized that you had this genetic mutation?

It was disturbing at first but it also made a lot of sense. And when you learn something like that you look back over your life. When I was younger I just thought I was extraordinary with color and art. But I think the big moment of realization came when Fuji TV came down to make a “Science Mysteries” documentary about tetrachromacy and they asked if they could film my school.  The crew had me step out of the room. There were about 12 students in the class at the time. Once I was gone they said to the group: “Raise your hand if your teacher sometimes points out colors in things that you can’t see.” They all raised their hands.  The more that I know about it and the more that I’m studied I know what I can see and what others can’t.

What does it mean to say you are a “functioning” tetrachromat?

The reason they say I am a functioning tetrachromat is because I’m a practicing artist. If I hadn’t been immersed in art and if I hadn’t been an art teacher for the last 30 years I wouldn’t necessarily have the level of color definition that they are finding. So while I have this genetic gift of a fourth receptor in my eyes the fact that I apply it on a daily basis improves my color recognition. Think of someone who has superior muscles but never learned to run. You can have the potential but it’s only realized if you use it. 

When color is involved, I’m almost like a computer. I make decisions very rapidly.  For example, I can arrange a stunning floral arrangement in seconds. People from a magazine once came to my home to film it and when they entered the front door the stylist put her bag down and said, “Well, there’s nothing for me to do here.” She said that had never happened before. They didn’t need to stage it or make it look pretty because it was all done. 

What was the color theme at your wedding?

White everything.  My bouquet was a fan made of white flowers and ivy and gardenias with white tulle. I had white candles. White, white, white, white.  

So do you have any idea if you inherited this? It’s a genetic mutation, right? Does that mean it was passed on from someone in your family? Does anyone else in your family have it?

We know it was inherited but we don’t know what my mother’s genetics were. And only women seem to have this genetic deviation. So my mom could have been a tetrachromat. We just don’t know. It could have come from my grandmother, or my great grandmother. My sister is an artist but it’s highly unlikely she’s one; however, we don’t know for sure because she hasn’t been tested yet. They say that my father is a rare blue-black color blind. 

But you know, my mother was very visual and very color-oriented: She had lime-green carpet in the house and she used to put a red light in the pool. My guess is she was a tetrachromat. 

Did color play a role when you met and became attracted to your husband?

Absolutely. I was captivated by his pale-blue eyes. They contained so many greens, lilac, turquoise, and other blues — they were illuminated and I was transfixed. 

Because he’s color-blind his clothing choice was always a little wacky, but that amused me. He doesn’t know how to put an outfit together. He makes bad color choices so I buy all his clothes for him. I remember when I met him he had this god-awful snowsuit. And it was the ugliest green I had ever seen, like that bad avocado color from the '70s, and a burned-orange color piping. I asked if he was really going to wear it because it was so disgusting. But I didn’t have to worry about anyone talking to him on the slopes. 

That must be comical, someone who is color-blind with someone who is so perceptive of color.

It’s hysterical. The other day he dropped a piece of granny smith apple on the floor and he was looking up and down for it. He just couldn’t see the wedge of apple on the wooden floor, and to me it looked like a lime-green beacon.  

Do you fuss over the way your family dresses?

Coordination is key. I’m very particular about everyone’s wardrobe. My kids’ rooms are styled and we all wear a lot of white. My youngest son likes bright turquoise on his walls – it’s hard for me to take but I let him win on that. They have to have their choices, too. 

What’s the décor in your house like?

It’s quite pastel, like lots of greens and pinks and pale emeralds and lilacs. I chose to have very soft and soothing colors around me. 

Is that why you like the color white, because you see pastels in white and find them calming?

That’s right. Because white’s not white to me. Right now I am looking at some white and there’s some really pale blue, and pale yellow, and violet, and other colors in it.

Is there a particular food that you especially like to look at?

I love blueberries. The color of the skin is so varied. Blues, purples, grays, gold, magentas, azures, and then when you bite them you get every type of gray, yellow, green, gold, lime, pink, violet. These are some of my favorite colors. I stare at them so much when I eat them: at the skin and the surprise colors inside. 

Do you have names for all the different colors that you can see?

Yes. And one of the things they did when they tested me was pull out some of these chips from a suitcase, and I didn’t know it at the time but they wanted to know if I actually had names for colors, and if they were really differentiated for me. They had duplicates and I would always know it was the same one. My color memory is extraordinary.  

How do you dress or accessorize?

I’m color, color, color girl. I put different colors on each of my nails way before it was trendy. I loved fluorescents. People always comment on my style because I am so coordinated. 

Do you have a signature look?

I would say it’s like a blue peacock. I like to use strong bright blues and violets and greens and aqua and pink makeup on my eyes. And those are the same colors that I like to put in my hair, dyed streaks. And I wear a lot of black. But remember black is not black to me: I see midnight blues and violets and turquoises.  

What it’s like when you look at your own blood or when one of your children is injured?

I’m not squeamish, but blood is a very strong to me. Actually, blood is very interesting — it’s very dark and there’s a lot in it. My children’s blood can be more yellowy-orange, some is bluish-purple-red.  The color changes rapidly as it is exposed to air and dries and scabs and does its thing. And when I look through my skin at my veins I see green, purple, yellow, red.

I’m curious to know what childbirth was like for you?

I have three children and they were all planned c-sections. I had a big white curtain up. But when my youngest child was born and I first saw him when they brought him over when I was in recovery, he was swaddled up. I immediately said, “That’s not my child” because he didn’t look like me — I have olive skin, because I have an Italian background. He looked pale, like raspberries and cream. 

It’s silly because he wouldn’t have necessarily been born with my skin tone anyway, but I just said, “He’s not my child, he’s not the right color.” When my daughter was born, she had some jaundice and I noticed it immediately. I could see the yellow before the doctors could. 

Does color ever make you physically sick?

No, I love color so I don’t think it ever makes me feel ill but sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I remember being in a researcher’s office in Washington when they were testing me. It was a tiny little room painted bright burned-orange and bright burned-red and bright dark-turquoise – Crayola colors. I said to him, “How do you work in here?” because it was suffocating. He just laughed. He said he liked it, to which I replied that he must be color-blind! 

Is there any situation that’s a color nightmare for you?

The grocery store and the mall are a color assault, there’s too much of everything and too much that is not naturally beautiful. Too many harsh colors and candy-colored marketing style “plastics” for my liking. I find red and yellow too much. Yellow stresses me out. 

What does a sterile stark space look like through your eyes?

When I’m in a hospital waiting room or dull office block, I see lots of pale grays, plastic, steel and other colors that are very cold on the eye. It’s blah. Freeways are gray and desolate and dirty. Government building décor is always done in such bad color taste. It’s imposing and dirty looking. 

Does your color vision come into play with your friendships at all?

I can get distracted by color and zone out of conversations. If I see something that’s unusually pretty it will totally take all my attention. I was recently out having lunch with a group of girlfriends and we were talking and somebody had to repeat my name, to draw me back. I was staring at the peony in the middle of the table and there was a light over it. It was creating all these colors and values and shadows on the tablecloth. I had tuned out of the conversation because I was looking at that. 

Are there any films or TV shows that you especially like to watch, because of the colors?

I love going to the movies but I especially like old color movies like Gone With the Wind. I loved the colors in Midnight in Paris and the recent Woody Allen one Magic in the Moonlight. I have watched it five times so far, and went twice in two days. 

Are there any TV shows that are too visually overwhelming?

I won’t watch anything that’s violent. I refuse to watch horror movies. All that blood is visually disturbing. When I was about 13 or 14, I walked out of the first Jaws movie. Prior to that, there was a Dracula movie in the '70s and I remember my stepfather had to carry me out kicking and screaming. I was hysterical. It was too much for me.

Do you ever feel the need to block out color, and is that something you can even do?

Yes, I can shut my eyes. I do find myself doing that, in fact, I did that a few minutes ago. I put my head down on the table and closed my eyes and just shut everything out. But interestingly enough, I still see color. I have little solar flare things running all around. 

Do you do that often?

When I’m tired, and when I’m tired of looking.

What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

Very recently, I was in Australia in Tweed Heads at the Margaret Olly Art Centre. I was having tea and scones on the café patio, which overlooks the river and the hills out into the hinterlands. And it was so beautiful that I was going on and on about it. Those precise words came out of my mouth. I said: “My goodness, this might be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” But, you know, I say that almost two times a week when I see a sunset.