Thursday, January 12, 2017

300+ Years of Color Theory: Basic Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.

This is a brilliant book by Egbert Jacobson describing the Ostwald color system in great detail published in 1948.




Where other color theorists build a system on primaries (like the artist’s Red, Yellow and Blue system or the printer’s Cyan, Magenta and Yellow system), Ostwald builds his three dimensional color system on the psychological human sensation of sight. These basics include an achromatic scale from white to black in the center, 24 pure hues of color along the equator, and regular mixtures of hues with black, white, and gray filling in the solid.

You can check back at my earlier post aboutOstwald’s system to see some of the basics from his own book. Jacobson’s book delves much deeper into the system and shows exactly how to use the system to find all kinds of color harmonies.




Although it’s not printed in perfect color, this book includes super cool printed triangles of each of the 24 colors in the wheel. Each is printed in both directions, allowing you to flip back pages to look at any 2 of the 24 colors symmetrically.




The author also shows at length how to diagram color harmonies with the Ostwald system, with examples for students to practice following, and in-depth charting of harmonies in the system from several famous works of art.



While some color systems with an achromatic axis plot hues to match with value (think Munsell), Ostwald keeps all hues in one equator in the solid. Jacobson says this works well because the chromatic quality of true hues is more important than lightness or darkness (seen as a separate sensation to Ostwald), and the hues in equal position make for the best comparison of equal-whites, equal-blacks, and gray series within the system.



Oswald’s system was at first widely used as a teaching model to study color relationships and for color matching. But ultimately the Munsell system became the preferred system for both color matching (agriculture, archeology, education, environmental studies, geology, museology to name a few) and studying color relationships.

Personally, I really love the symmetry in the Ostwald system. Looking at each of the hues in the same form makes it easy to compare colors and look for harmonies throughout the whole system. It just makes for an incredibly ordered, pleasing system. Too bad it's not considered by more current authors to be a "correct" form of color system, but there have been some very beautiful works of art created directly from use of the Ostwald system. 

For instance, work by Hannes Beckmann,



And Ben Cunningham.


Even though the Ostwald system is seen as being a bit "wrong" in current times, artists were STILL able to use this system to create really beautiful work. The more I read about Color Theory, the more I come to understand that it's all relative when it comes to finding inspiration. When artists use one system or another to help spark their creative minds and imaginations and create good work, I'm not sure there can be an argument made over which system really is "correct" for this purpose.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Ostwald system, there are still several used copies of this book floating around online (at the time I'm writing this article, anyway!). If you look hard enough, you can find one!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: The Story of Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.


You might remember Faber Birren from my short highlight here. This book published in 1941 is a culmination of Birren’s 20 plus years of research on the human race’s age-old relationship with color, and a companion to his Monument to Color. He has a very interesting view on color theory, as he has seen an ancient and mystical love of color move into a modern age, strictly “just the facts” period of scientific discovery. In his estimation, defining color in the scientific method has moved humans away from an emotional and primitive connection with color.

In his own words,
          “The ambition is a sizable one, but here in these pages is an attempt to review the history of color. The chapters have been assembled from notes which I have gathered over the years. Slowly they have crowded my desk to a point of bursting. Their confusion and wild disorder have never ceased to trouble me. How to write about a subject that covers a thousand bypaths of history, a thousand aspects of human thought, desire, hope, and feeling? How to discuss civilization, gods, mythology, religion, art, culture, astrology, alchemy, science, physics, chemistry, psychology?”

Birren approaches the problem of how to review the history of color by dividing his book into major sections, and in each section covering different topics. This makes for a book that you don’t necessarily have to read in page-order, but rather can flip open to one of the major sections, and reading an article or two at leisure. Now that I think about it, this book is much more like a gathering together of essays and articles on various subjects of color than a textbook.


This was an apropos spot in the reading list for this book, as it contains a section on the science of color which read as a review of some previous books in the list (Newton, Goethe, Chevreul, Munsell, Rood, and Ostwald). The sections on art and science provide a really nice review of color theory from ancient times through the mid-20th Century.


The best part of reading this book is how strong Birren’s personality comes through in his writing. There’s no mistaking his points of view about certain theories about color. And even better are his obvious feelings for some of the master color theorists included in his book, to which he describes as if he knows them intimately.


It’s not an easy book to find, but it does make for an interesting read. The historical information pertaining directly to color theory (the art and science of color) is spot-on.  I searched for months before finally finding a used copy. And the used copy I have includes a major printing error where pages 145-160 are missing. If you can find a library copy, especially one that doesn't have missing pages, definitely check it out!

Next I’m moving on to Basic Color, An Interpretation of the Ostwald Color System by Egbert Jacobson. I’ve really been looking forward to this book, as I really love the basics of the Ostwald system in Birren’s edited version of The Color Primer. Basic Color is a very in-depth explanation of the Ostwald color system and includes lots of color illustrations and exercises - and looks like a great read!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: Monument to Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.


Monument to Color is Faber Birren’s ideology on color and how to use it, published in 1938. While the format of his book seems to follow to those from the 19th Century (like Chevreul and Rood), Birren’s book includes some very unique ideas.

Looking back at the other books read in this series, color wheels can be categorized as one of 3 major systems; the spectrum (Newton and Munsell), a 3-color primary system (Goethe, Rood, Harris, Chevreul), or the psychological colors (Ostwald). Birren has a totally new approach to his color wheel that he calls the Rational Color Wheel.



His wheel begins with the psychological colors opposite each other in Red/Green and Blue/Yellow on the wheel, with the secondary and tertiary colors filling in (along the same lines as the Ostwald color wheel). But then Birren suggest this creates too many cool colors that the human eye cannot easily distinguish between, and removes several colors through the green side of the wheel. The result is an off-center wheel with some colors left without a complementary partner. 

I'm not sure how it would be to use the Rational Color Circle in practice, but leaving some colors without complements seems a bit awkward to me. I can't imagine using such a lopsided system!




He also presents a simplified color triangle along the same lines as Ostwald, and even includes a chart on “The Birren Color Equation” for charting hues combined with black, white, and gray.



Birren’s equations within the system are based on black/white value with hue. This chart represents the amount of black and white added to a hue with two numerals, hue has no numerical value in this system.



Ostwald's system contains equations made of 3 numerals; black content, white content, and hue content. Although the formulas differ between the two, the grid system is very similar (chart above from Jacobson’s BasicColor). In this respect, there's not much new with Birren's approach to organizing color tints, tones and shades within a triangular grid.

There is, of course, an entire section of rules for color harmony in this book. Not surprisingly, they are similar to Ostwald's system. Birren concludes that any straight line drawn within the grid lines of his Color Equation triangle with result in natural color harmony.


What does set Birren’s approach apart from Ostwald's is the pages and pages he writes in detail about how to use color to create different effects. Included at the back of the book are several very beautifully colord plates illustrating these effects - here are just a few.


Color plate VII demonstrates luster in the appearance of opalescence.


Color plate V demonstrates luster in the appearance of metal.


Color plate VII demonstrates luminosity with the appearance of colored lights. I'm impressed to read that Birren did paint all of these examples himself, along with more colored paintings demonstrating principles of color theory and color effects. Not all color theorists that have written advice to painters on the use of color were adept painters themselves!

Still, I have to admit, I was a little bit let-down after reading Monument to Color. I anticipated something wonderful in this book, something groundbreaking and maybe even a new point of view on color from Birren (being such a noted scholar in the field). To find that he's basically rehashing ideas from Ostwald is a disappointment. I might feel different if he unabashedly promoted Ostwald's system, and then showed how he used it to create beautiful work. But it seems like he just made enough small changes in Ostwald's system to call it his own.

On the other hand, I was not disappointed in the great care Birren took to write about how to use colors to create different effects as mentioned above. And props to Birren for actually creating work with paint with the ideas he's presented. I would recommend reading his advice on the use of color to create effects to any painter or artist who creates with color. 

This particular volume is hard to find, but there is another Birren book reprinted in the 1980's called Principles of Color, in which you can find some of his principles for using color to create different effects if you're interested.

And now I'm wondering if this is the point in history where things start to stagnate with color theory. I do know that there is a book on my list written in the 1980's that will shatter some of the earlier established thoughts on color theory. I'm looking forward to that book, but until then I'm moving on to Birren's companion to this book titled The Story of Color: From Ancient Mysticism to Modern Science!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Singer 221 Centennial

I just got my hands on another Featherweight, a 1951 Centennial! It was a machine that belonged to a family member of a friend, and no one in the family really wanted to keep it. I heard about it through the grapevine and this baby became an early birthday present for me.


The machine has definitely been used, it has tell-tale wear marks and scratches on the bed and some other areas. But it's also super clean on the inside and out. And to tell you the truth, I didn't even notice that it was a Centennial badged machine until I was cleaning her up last night.


It just needed a bit of dusting and oiling, and does work pretty well! I can't get over how SHINY she is. Wherever the previous owner took her for servicing must have waxed the machines as part of the spa treatment. Even with the light scratching and wear, the decals are in great shape.


As good as she looks, she needs a new belt, bulb, and new cords for the plug and pedal before I can get to work with her.


Oh, and bonus! Inside the super-clean case for this baby was the original oil can. I've never seen one before in real life.


A really sweet machine, and I can't wait to sew with her!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Color Theory Tool: The Color Game

I ran across this little color tool/toy at a recent visit to the Art Institute.


The Color Game by Ted Naos includes a series of colored cards with different cut-outs and instruction cards. They measure roughly 3.5 x 3.5 inches square.


The instructions include basics about color theory, including a list of color harmonies from Chevreul and a mini-color wheel.


You can use the color wheel and information included with the game to play with different color combinations. And hey - the square shapes start to look like quilt blocks, am I right?


Here's an analogous combination, colors next to each other on the wheel. Once you find a combination, you can play further by switching up the cards to get different effects with the colors.



Here's an example of a complementary pair below with greens and red.


And there's a few white and black color screens, which can also give different effects with the same sets of colors. Check out the red/blue combo with white and black below. Even the settings on my digital camera reacted differently between the white with the red/blue and the black with the red/blue, you can see it in the way the camera read the table differently in each photo.



I played with this for about an hour when I brought it home, and I really like it! Especially the way you can easily switch around the colors to see immediate results with the interactions between different colors. And as a bonus, the little jewel case for the game can be used as a little stand if you find a combination you really like!


Thumbs up! 

You can click through to the Ted Naos website at the link above to see the many sets offered - this is the basic set. There's a pretty awesome looking Street Architecture set where these cutout cards are shaped like different buildings, and some other neat-o shaped sets, too.

Have fun!