The Color-Blind Artist, A.B. Frost

Frost’s Summer Woodcock, in full color.

by Brooke Chilvers

The innate inklings of art that swirled in the blood of American illustrator and artist A.B. Frost (1851–1928) found early expression in his simple but lively use of pen and ink on paper.  As did his sense of humor, illustrating authors of comedy and satire, including Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and the creator of Uncle Remus and his circle, Joel Chandler Harris.  As one critic wrote, Frost’s “pencil gave visual form to characters imaged by other men destined to live as long as America itself.”   

Pen and ink drawings and black and white reproduction methods suited both Frost’s talented hand and his lousy eyes, which could not distinguish among many colors—especially red and green, a condition called deuteranopia.  Color vision deficiency (CVD) mostly affects men.  It usually runs in families, and still cannot be cured although, today, hi-tech eyeglasses can increase the contrast between some colors.  Other causes include trauma to the eye, medications to treat malaria and tuberculosis, and diabetes. 

Frost’s A Pheasant at the Wood’s Edge, in black and white.

Aviation is one profession usually ruled out for CVD individuals; in Romania and Singapore you cannot even get a driving license!  One would think interior design, illustration, and fine arts would be out of the question for “deuteranopics.” Yet Monet, Turner, and Degas were all color-blind, and did not settle for just etching and sculpture.  

Of course, even a CVD artist knows that in winter, evergreens are still green while the fields are colored straw. And logic tells them that mixing light blue with light yellow will always produce light green. But Frost’s coping strategies included input from his watchful wife, the former Miss Emily Louise Phillips (1852–1928), daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia industrialist.  She’d studied art in Germany and worked as a part-time illustrator for Harper’s Sons, then the country’s biggest publisher; A.B. met her when he worked there as a draughtsman illustrating sporting stories for their magazines.  

Frost’s Ducks from a Blind, in salt-marsh yellow.

Undoubtedly, over time, he also worked out formulas to paint maples and oaks, ash and birch, at every stage of autumn.  Ditto for the range of colored markings on different breeds of hunting dogs, from the more orangey patches of a Brittany to the more chocolatey-splotched springer spaniel, passing through liver colors and roans.  

It’s not surprising that the majority of Frost’s work was reproduced in black and white, such as A Pheasant at the Wood’s Edge.  But he also painted in watercolor and oil pigments, overcoming any deficiencies in color perception with his mind.  

Frost’s Coming Ashore, one of four chromolithographs published posthumously in 1933 by Derrydale Press, in a limited edition of 200, is another of Frost’s illustrations that works as well in black and white as in the multiple color reproductions that appeared over the years, first in various publications and now on websites.  

Frost’s rosy-lit Ducks from a Battery.

Regardless whether Frost could accurately see in his mind any October reds in his Autumn Woodcock Shooting, from his 1895 Charles Scribner’s Sons portfolio, Shooting Pictures, he knew they had evolved from the verdant greens in Summer Woodcock, a work perhaps best enjoyed in color. 

So how did Frost do it?  His close friend who also painted his portrait, Augustus Daggy, said Frost had not only “a natural gift for the living line,” but also great feeling for color values. For example, in Autumn Woodcock Shooting, the entire space consists entirely of different shades of gray and brown – no reds needed.  His talent and understanding for translating hues and values into full color allowed the harmonious glow of his varying skies and waters, whether Ducks From a Battery or Ducks from a Blind.

From Frost’s six-panel golf satire, He Got Madder and Madder and Madder.

Still, Frost once conceded, “My sketch is very yellow and brown, I am afraid, for I sketched it as I saw it, and if it is monotonous in color, it is my fault.”  Yet a critic wrote, “Whether saltmarsh or yellowish fall landscape, his colors are true, characteristic, often full of essential charm of special locality.”

At some point, Frost was aided by his surviving son, artist John Frost (1890–1937), in producing “pictures that were satisfactory to patrons and publishers,” who laid out  clearly labeled tubes of pigment in logical order for his father’s palette.  Mere mind over matter.  Thomas Eakins, who’d taught draftsmanship and anatomy to the already successful illustrator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, said of his student, “I never saw a man study so hard.  Anatomy, photography, everything he could get that would satisfy his consuming passion to know it all.  He took such endless pains I really felt he would kill himself with overwork.”

Augustus Daggy’s portrait of A.B. Frost is for sale!

Overwork he did, losing his heart, even for his own humor, along the way.  Nevertheless, his six-panel narratives, for example, He Got Madder and Madder and Madder, are considered forerunners of today’s comics.  Here, the ill-tempered golfer throws a fit and tosses his clubs, his caddie, and finally himself into the pond.  Yet a melancholy Frost wrote:  “Caricature is with me a separate thing from my life.  I am wretchedly unhappy and always will be, but I can make ‘comic’ pictures just as I always did.  I know when they are funny but they do not amuse me in the least.”

Perhaps this was brought on by the premature death of his gifted but “dissipated” son, artist Arthur Frost, Jr. (1887-1917), whom he’d berated for abandoning Realism for Modernism, Matisse, and the company of Gertrude Stein. 

Standing in a gallery full of sporting art, it seems that Frost had actually taken the advice of artist Edwin A. Abbey (1852-1911), who suggested he turn his color-blindness into “a laudable attribute of originality in style.”  From the far side of the room, one quickly recognizes Frost’s hand—and eye.  

Brooke Chilvers discovered that Augustus Daggy’s 1884 original oil-on-canvas portrait of A.B. Frost is for sale!  The painting also appears as the frontispiece to the book “The A.B. Frost Book,” by Henry Reed.  Go to:

To read more about A.B. Frost by Brooke Chilvers, go to: