If you know how vision works, you may know that what you see — and particularly what colours you can see — is controlled by the rods and cones in your retina, at the back of your eye. Rods are sensitive to light, and cones allow you to see colour. Most people have three different types of cones, which allows them to see up to 1 million shades of colour — this is known as trichromacy. But relatively recently, scientists became aware that certain people, in most cases women, have a fourth type of cone, and this allows them to see up to 100 million different shades of colour. They are called “tetrachromats.”
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.
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.”