Shades of Gray

When he first began to draw, Dave Diaz focused on eyes.

Enthralled by their structure and intensity, he paid special attention to the shapes, the contrasts and the way the light seemed to reflect deep inside. He tried various types of paper, playing with erasers and subtle layers of graphite. Occasionally, he said, he would experiment with watercolor: He watched how other artists reacted to the paints he chose, and the way they mixed together on the page.

But he always preferred shades of gray. To Diaz, that seemed to come naturally.

Some artists begin to draw as soon as they can hold a pencil. Diaz, 28, followed a different route.

Born in South Dakota to military parents, he grew up in Germany, New Mexico, Southern California and Japan before moving to Alaska at the age of 16. If variety is the spice of life, Diaz lives in a chili pepper world.

Since coming to Alaska, he's worked at a shooting range in Wasilla, a fat-bike retailer and a cafe at an Anchorage strip mall. He's made truffles by hand for a local chocolatier, and worked for Anchorage's local alt-weekly newspaper. In college at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Diaz studied computer network technology. It wasn't until the death of one friend and the encouragement of another—both artists—that Diaz turned his attention to pencil and paper. That was about three years ago, he said.

What common thread connects all those things? Start with adaptability. In computer networking, in art and in life, Diaz says, flexibility is key. 

"There's no exact answer; you have to take a lot of avenues to get there, eventually, and sometimes you kind of have to make up a solution," he says, sipping a drink in a midtown cafe one overcast weekday afternoon.

You may recognize him—from Cafe Felix and the Metro Mall, from the local chocolate shop, from the Anchorage Press or around campus at UAA. But you'd be hard pressed to identify his artwork. That's because, for now, Diaz chooses to keep it under wraps. At least for the most part.

He has no exhibits and no gallery space. He barely even shows his work to his friends. After three years of practice, the commissions are just starting to trickle in: He's been approached about a mural for a sandwich shop and branding for a few local cannabis operations. But ask about his own personal work—the pencil sketches he's been perfecting for years—and he'll tell you he still has a ways to go.

"I don't want it to be just technically good," he says. "I want it to be something you can look into — something you can look at and notice little details that give it a surrealist twist, make it interesting."

For inspiration, he turns to Tumblr and other social media. Sitting in front of his computer, armed with his favorite paper and about a dozen pencils and maybe a beer, he practices recreating the things he sees in portraits and other photographs. Look closely: With eyes, there's a special way the light and dark seem to play within the fibrous strands of the iris, forming shadowy lines and mysterious distances. There are muted contrasts and tiny details that make every eye unique. Over the past three years, Diaz estimates he's studied and drawn about 120 of them. 

To Diaz, they're deep pools of black and white and shades of gray—no color. Because Diaz is color blind.

According to the National Eye Institute, the condition is surprisingly common, affecting less than one percent of women but about eight percent of all men of Northern European ancestry. Caused by abnormal color-detecting molecules located within the retina, color blindness can take several forms.

The most common is red-green blindness. Next comes blue-yellow color blindness, followed by total color blindness. That's Diaz. The condition is often inherited, according to NEI. It's also incurable.

But when you've been color blind since birth, how do you know what you're missing? Diaz has always seen the world in gray. As a child, he never suspected a thing. He already had poor eyesight, he said, and during the '90s, it seemed like everyone was wearing black anyway.

Then, in high school, things came to a head during a particularly colorful home improvement project. A plan to refinish his parents' deck required stripping the existing layer of paint. Before that could be done, Diaz was responsible for administering a paper strip test to check for lead in the old paint, he said. If the paper turned yellow, the resulting chemical reaction would be toxic. If the paper stayed white, proceed. To his eyes, the test came back clean. His parents saw something else entirely.

There are several ways to diagnose color blindness, according to the NEI. The Ishihara Color Test involves identifying shapes formed by colored dots within a sea of differently colored dots. The Cambridge Color Test is similar. Then there's the HRR Pseudoisochromatic Color Test, and the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test, which challenges test-takers to arrange colors in order of hue.

A quick trip to the optometrist and a failed test confirmed the suspicions: Diaz was living in a colorless world. He was 17 when he heard the news.

The most difficult part of his diagnosis was adjusting to the knowledge that something was missing, he said. He's never seen colors; he had no frame of reference. Now he knew. So he stopped doing electrical work, for safety's sake. He felt a newfound self-consciousness when getting dressed in the morning, opting for darker clothes and paying extra attention to other people's reactions to different pieces and combinations. Looking back, he sees the effect the diagnosis had on the course of his life. He learned to associate colors with scenes, concepts and situations. Red is heat, energy, anger, aggression. Green is nature, springtime and the outdoors.

"I kind of remember things in weird ways," he says. "I get an idea of what colors mean to other people."

Art is a way to explore and express the myriad shades of gray that have tinted his life for so long.

After practicing with the eyes, Diaz worked his way outward, teaching himself to draw whole faces and playing with the negative space on the page. He draws in layers, building things up one detail at a time, until eyes become faces and faces become portraits. Eventually, he'd like to show his work to a wider audience—for now, he does it for himself.

Since he started drawing eyes, he's begun to notice more about the real things: how outside light hits them, the way eyelids fold around them. Those details become central to his work. With graphite, he captures contrast, shape, depth, shade, intensity, structure, light and dark.

Color, he says, rarely crosses his mind.

This article was originally published in 61°North – The Arts Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.