December 1, 2022

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‘I’m really just high on life and beauty’: the woman who can see 100 million colours | Science

It would be easy to look at the vivid array of colour contained in the paintings of artist Concetta Antico and assume she is using artistic licence. The trunks of her eucalyptus trees are hued with violet and mauve; the yellow crest on her cockatoo has hints of green and blue; the hypercolour of a garden landscape looks almost psychedelic.

“It’s not just an affectation and it’s not artistic licence,” says Antico. “I’m actually painting exactly what I see. If it’s a pink flower and then all of a sudden you see a bit of lilac or blue, I actually saw that.”

Antico is a tetrachromat, which means she has a fourth colour receptor in her retina compared with the standard three which most people have. While those of us with three of these receptors – called cone cells – have the ability to distinguish around one million different colours, tetrachromats see an estimated 100 million.

Until 10 years ago, Antico says, “I didn’t know I was not experiencing the world like other people were. For me, the world was just really very colourful. It’s kind of like, you don’t know you’re a zebra unless you’re not a zebra.”

As a child growing up in Sydney, Antico says she was always “a little bit out of the box” – dying her hair with bright colours and choosing emerald-green carpet and black and lime green curtains for her bedroom. Fascinated with nature, she’d often disappear for an entire day into the land around a nearby golf course.

“I always felt like I was living in a very magical world. I know children say that, but for me, it was like everything was hyper-wonderful, hyper-different. I was always exploring into nature, delving and trying to see the intricacies, because I’d see so much more detail in everything. Someone else might look at a leaf or a petal on a flower, but for me, it was like a compulsion to really understand it, really see it, and sometimes spend a lot of time on it. And I just wanted to paint and portray everything that I was seeing.”

As a child growing up in Sydney, Concetta Antico had a ‘compulsion’ to paint the things she saw in nature.
As a child growing up in Sydney, Concetta Antico had a ‘compulsion’ to paint the details she saw in nature. Photograph: Ariana Drehsler/The Guardian

After finishing university, Antico moved to the United States, where she became an artist and art teacher in San Diego, developing her unique style of colourful landscapes and flora and fauna.

Her diagnosis didn’t come until 2012, when one of her students, a neurologist, emailed her a scientific paper about tetrachromacy, speculating that this could be what Antico had. A few months earlier, Antico had discovered her daughter was colour-blind (“I told her she was fine, she was just different and special and amazing and I’d teach her how to see colour anyway”) and when she opened the article one of the first things she read was that women who have potential for tetrachromacy also have potential to create a colour-blind female offspring.

Antico emailed the scientists who wrote the paper and “within 24 hours, I was sending my saliva up to Washington” where testing confirmed she had the genetic mutation responsible for tetrachromacy.

According to Dr Kimberly Jameson, a University of California scientist who has studied Antico, just having the gene – which around 15% of women have – is not alone sufficient to be a tetrachromat, but it’s a necessary condition. “In Concetta’s case … one thing we believe is that because she’s been painting sort of continuously since the age of seven years old, she has really enlisted this extra potential and used it. This is how genetics works: it gives you the potential to do things and if the environment demands that you do that thing, then the genes kick in.”

Discovering she saw the world differently to others changed the way Antico taught her students. “I became a lot more patient,” she says. “Say we were down painting a beach, I’d do a lot more of, ‘OK, let’s look at this together. Can you see that?’ And if they’d say no, I’d be like, ‘Well, let’s look a little closer’ … When they see it, they will paint it, so my students’ paintings became much richer.”

Through family genetic testing, Antico learned that her mother, who died when she was 12, was also likely to be a tetrachromat – a discovery that helped Antico make sense of her childhood home. “Like, she had a red and blue light in the swimming pool in the 60s, just to make it violet. Stuff that nobody was doing, really bizarre stuff, and her house was unusual colours.”

Concetta Antico didn’t receive her diagnosis until 2012 after one of her student emailed her a scientific paper about tetrachromacy.
Concetta Antico didn’t receive her diagnosis until 2012. Photograph: Ariana Drehsler/The Guardian

Having super vision, Antico says, brings her enormous happiness. “I’m so anti-drugs, and I’m sure people just think I’m high on something all the time, but I’m really just high on life and the beauty that’s around us. I often think to myself, how could you be unhappy in this world? Just go sit in a park. Just go look at a bush or a tree. You can’t not appreciate how magnificent it is.”

While the natural world is a positive stimulant for Antico, many man-made environments, such as a large shopping centre with fluorescent lighting, have the opposite effect. “I feel very uneasy. I actually avoid going into those kinds of buildings unless I absolutely have to,” she says. “I don’t enjoy the barrage, the massive onslaught of bits of unattractive colour. I mean, there’s a difference between looking at a row of stuff in a grocery store and looking at a row of trees. It’s like, it’s ugly, and the lights are garish. It makes me not happy.”

Now settled in Byron Bay, Antico is teaching less and painting more, wanting to produce “even more work than I did before, in these final decades of my life”.

“I’m going to keep painting my birds, my animals, my trees. I want to describe what I’m seeing in nature because that’s a window, in a way, to things that other people aren’t really seeing.”