The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 240 | On Tetrachromacy and Comics Coloring

Leaving Proof 240 | On Tetrachromacy and Comics Coloring
Published on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: We get our geek on and discuss the phenomenon of human tetrachromacy and its possible implications on comics coloring.

Last week, the BBC’s website featured quite the interesting article by former New Scientist editor and current BBC Future features writer David Robson on the rare phenomenon of functional human tetrachromacy, highlighting in particular the case of the Australian-born, San Diego-based painter and art teacher Concetta Antico, a confirmed tetrachromat. It’s worth reading for anyone even remotely interested in the relationship between science and art, and how biology impacts culture.

What is tetrachromat? A tetrachromat is an organism that possesses four independent channels for sensing environmental color information. Humans, for the most part, are what are referred to as trichromats—organisms that sensorially code color information via three independent channels. These three color channels are the result of the three different photopigments found in the three cone cell types of the human eye, with each type corresponding to the red, green, and blue primary colors. The various combinations of these three primary colors, as anyone familiar with basic color theory knows, give rise to the full range of colors visible to human vision. [The relationship between photopigments and the visible light spectrum is actually more complicated than that—“red, green, and blue” are just approximations of the actual light wavelengths the cone cells are sensitive to—but the above explanation should suffice for this article’s purposes, and if you find yourself wanting to learn more about the genetic and physiological basis of human color vision and tetrachromacy, this Ask a Neuroscientist blog post on human tetrachromacy, the video presentation by researchers Kimberly Jameson and Alissa Winkler and the RadioLab podcast episode “The Perfect Yellow,” are all great places to start.]

Many animals, such as certain species of fish and birds, are natural tetrachromats, in that they possess photopigments that are most sensitive to the red, green, blue, and ultraviolet wavelengths. In these cases, tetrachromacy seems to be a naturally selected trait—the ability to see in the ultraviolet range may help with tasks related to mating and food acquisition, among other things. In the case of Concetta Antico, research by Jay Nietz of the University of Washington has shown that she possesses an extra fourth photopigment that is the result of a rare variation in the X chromosome-linked gene sequence for certain proteins. The extra color channel provided by this photopigment is sensitive to the wavelengths between red and green, thus giving Antico what is called “four-dimensional” color vision.

However, having the genetic and physiologic base for a fourth photopigment is apparently just one component of being a functional tetrachromat—that is, someone who not only possesses the fourth photopigment, but also the ability to consistently make distinctions between colors that are otherwise imperceptible to trichromats. A 2010 study of nine female subjects who had the extra photopigment revealed that only one of them could actually make the color differentiations expected of a functional tetrachromat. As Jameson and Winkler explain in the video presentation linked to above, it might be that functional tetrachromacy is best predicted by a combination of having the fourth photopigment in sufficient quantities and a life history of art training—a result of nature and nurture, if you like.

How does a functional tetrachromat like Antico see the world? Without direct access to their visual perception, it’s difficult to even imagine—maybe they see colors that “normally-sighted” people can’t see or perhaps they see colors with additional differentiating features not available to trichromats—although looking at Antico’s paintings may provide some sort of insight into how tetrachromats see the world. Regardless of their subjective experience of color, a number of confirmed tetrachromats like Antico have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to distinguish between color samples that appear identical to trichromats, but are actually subtly different in terms of their actual wavelength.

All this has me wondering if human tetrachromacy—an exclusively female phenomenon due to the fact that it is triggered in humans by an anomaly in the X-inactivation process—has implications in comics. As a kid growing up reading comics in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, it did not escape my notice that if one were to find a woman as a member of a comic book’s art team, she would more often than not be serving as the title’s colorist: Marie Javins, Marie Severin, Tatjana Wood, Glynis Oliver, and Christie Scheele  are the most notable names that come to mind. That trend continues today if we look at the percentage of women being credited as contributing artists in comics published by BOOM! Studios, Dark Horse, DC, IDW Publishing, Marvel, Dynamite, and Image Comics, based on the most recent data collected and compiled by Tim Hanley for‘s recurring “Gendercrunching” feature:









Ireland-based American artist Jordie Bellaire carries on the legacy established by Marie Severin, Marie Javins, Glynis Oliver, and other women colorists in comics from previous decades.

And while awards are by no means an objective measure of artistic ability, they can provide, if nothing else, some sort of subjective consensus about artists’ standing with their peers and critics. As with the percentages outlined above, women seem to have more success as colorists relative to the other comics art professions:

  • Six out of the 22 (27.2%) Eisner Award winners for Best Colorist are women (Lynn Varley in 1999, Laura DePuy in 2000 and 2002, Patricia Mulvihill in 2004, Laura Allred in 2012, and Jordie Bellaire in 2014). By contrast, only one woman has won the Best Penciler/Artist/Penciler-Inker Team Award out of the 26 total recipients in the Eisners’ history (Pia Guerra in 2008, with inker Jose Marzan, Jr.).
  • Seven out of the 26 (26.9%) Harvey Award winners for Best Colorist are women (Lynn Varley in 1999, Laura DePuy in 2001, Laura Martin in 2006, 2008, and 2010; Lark Pien in 2007, and Fiona Staples in 2013). By comparison, it’s only been twice in 26 years that a woman has received the Harvey Award for Best Penciler/Artist (Fiona Staples in 2013 and 2014).

Canadian artist Fiona Staples has won acclaim as an illustrator and a colorist. (Pictured: Staples’ cover for Criminal Macabre: No Peace for Dead Men.)

Of course, the data above doesn’t really say anything one way or another in terms of tetrachromacy and comics coloring. For one thing, we don’t know if any of the past and current women colorists are tetrachromats, although given the odds—one study estimates that up to 12% of all women possess a fourth photopigment—chances are good that at least some of them have the potential to be functional tetrachromats. The ratio of Best Colorist vs. Best Illustrator wins at the Eisner and Harvey Awards may also be just as much a reflection of the relative paucity of high-profile female pencilers/artists in comics as it is evidence of potential tetrachromats’ facility with color applications in art.

In addition, the example of Concetta Antico aside, there haven’t been any studies as far as I am aware establishing an empirical link between tetrachromacy and a predisposition towards a coloring-related profession, or tetrachromacy and artistic ability.

Still, it makes sense to suppose that tetrachromacy exerts an influence on the coloring choices made by a tetrachromat artist—a 2001 study by Jameson, et al suggests that functional tetrachromacy can help explain previously unelucidated gender-based differences in color preferences and color salience. It’s also possible that the cumulative effect of coloring choices based on color differences visible only to tetrachromats can still be sensible to the majority trichromat readers within the larger context of the work (to understand how this can happen, think of color differentiation in terms of the classic sorites paradox).

On balance, social and organizational explanations and individual differences in training and ability will likely better account for the gender demographics of the professional comics colorist community (especially in relation to the other comic art professions) than a strictly biological analysis, but in any case, this all makes for some interesting armchair speculation and a starting point for discussions about how cognitive and perceptual phenomena based on physiology can and do impact the creation of comics art.

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