Colorblind, he chose art anyway

After best-selling children’s books illustrator Loren Long finished a Facebook live art video in The New York Times studio, his publicist noticed a viewer comment from Long’s brother. “He says you’re colorblind,” she said, shocked. Long admitted it was true. He had never talked about his colorblindness publicly, he said.

As an admirer of Long’s beautiful — and colorful — picture books, like the Otis the Tractor series, “Of Thee I Sing,” by Barack Obama, “Little Tree” and his newest book, “Love,” which will be published Jan. 9, I was shocked too. I asked him if he’d tell me more.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Why have you never revealed that you’re colorblind?

A: Early in my career I kept it secret because I was worried that it would hurt my ability to get hired. If an art director or editor knew I was colorblind, would they want to work with me? I also just didn’t want to call attention to myself, when people have overcome far greater odds than mine. I think of it as an “obstacle” as opposed to a “disability.”

Q: How did you first discover it?

A: I was 14 and I’d started having a hard time seeing the chalkboard at school. My mom took me to the optometrist. He found a little bit of nearsightedness. But he also gave me something I’ve now learned is called the Ishihara color test. As we were leaving he said, “By the way, Mrs. Long, did you know your son is colorblind?”

I was a typical kid growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. My parents were not artists. I liked sports. I’d realized I was not going to be a professional athlete, but the other thing I liked was art. I’d been getting pats on the back from my art teachers. It was the one thing I loved in school, and I’d started to think maybe it was my calling. Then I hear that I’m colorblind. The optometrist said, “It’s not that rare in males,” 1 in 12 men have some color vision deficiency, and 1 in 200 women. He told my mom, “It’s no big deal unless he wants to be an electrician or a dermatologist.” Then he chuckled and said, “Or an artist.”

We got in the car and tears started running down my face. My mom said, “What is it, Loren?” And I said, “He said ‘artist.’” And I’ll never forget this, she gripped my knee while she was driving and looked over and gritted her teeth. “Loren, your art is beautiful. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t be an artist.”

I look back at that, and I think, What if I hadn’t had that direct and immediate response from my mother? I might have given up right then on the idea of being an artist.

Q: Can you describe your colorblindness?

A: I’ll try. It’s complicated. In general, I can’t tell the difference between the many shades of brown and green or blue and purple. They’re very similar to me. Light blue and lavender look the same, and tan and pale green are almost impossible to tell apart. My living room is a shade of gray, but if my wife had told me it was green, I would have taken her word all these years. I see colors best when they are at their most pure. I see bright red pretty well, but burgundy starts looking brown to me. Yellows and oranges I probably see best.

Q: And yet you went to art school and from there became a professional artist.

A: I did. I learned color theory, the science of color. I could draw and compose a picture, but still, not being able to see subtle hues, I realized I could never be a classical portrait painter.

Q: All your books have many colors in them. How do you do that?

A: I work with tubes of paint that have the names on them. I put colors on the palette in a certain order. I know color theory, but when I get into a painting, it’s very intuitive.

Q: But you can’t know for sure how it looks?

A: That’s the scary thing. If I’m not careful I could paint brown leaves instead of green. I have to rely on values, and I think because of my colorblindness, I have a heightened sense of values — darks, lights and middle tones. Saturation could be another way to describe it. So I have a solid grasp of lighting and lights and darks. I try to establish a strong light source and let value define the picture more than color.

Q: How did you get your first job as an artist?

A: It was at a greeting card company. I had enough drawing skill to get hired, but the first week I struggled to match the colors. I thought I was doing great, and my supervisor kept calling me back to do it over. Finally they put me on probation, and the director of the department said, “We would never have hired a colorblind artist.”

But I managed to prove my value, and they made a concession for me on matching Pantone colors. I’d gotten good at knocking on my neighbor’s door or looking over the cubicle wall and asking people to help. Before that, it had been my mother helping me with color, but then I had other people around me. I didn’t want anyone in the world to know I was colorblind, but I had to. It’s like an illiterate person who may be very intelligent but just never learned to read, and many times leads a successful life because they learn ways around it.

And now there’s my wife. We’ve been married 22 years, and she’s my main color consultant. Then my two sons came along, and they started helping me, too.

Q: And your books have done so well.

A: Yes, I’m very fortunate, and yet I’ve always felt like a bit of an underdog because of my struggles with color.

Q: You’re about to go on a national tour for “Love,” with the book’s Newbery Medal-winning author, Matt de la Peña. You’ll no doubt be getting lots of attention. Do you think you’ll talk about your colorblindness?

A: I’ve come to a place where I’m comfortable speaking about it. I would never want to make it seem like, “Oh, look at me, I have this problem and I’ve overcome this major thing.” But maybe there’s some other 13-year-old boy or girl who wants to be an artist, and either has the same situation, or just something else in the way. Maybe there’s somebody else who has an obstacle and could be inspired by this.

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