Saturday, August 27, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: The Principles of Light & Color

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

Originally published in 1878, I read the Faber Birren reprint of The Principles of Light & Color: The Healing Power of Color published in 1967.

The first Color Theory books on the reading list were compiled by some of the world’s best known scientists and thinkers. This book’s author not only helped spark the still thriving cult of color therapy over 130 years ago, but also earned the unfortunate reputation of a Quack Doctor .

While there are many studies today on the subject of color psychology, Babbitt takes his personal theories and builds an entire system of what he terms Chromopathy (also Chromotherapy), or the “medical practice” of healing with colors. Many Color Theorists have written about the physiological effectsof color, even Goethe noted in his book on colors how some hues are associated with “emotions of the mind.” For instance, Goethe labels Yellow as a positive color, associating it with light, warmth, and action; he labels blue a negative color, associating it with darkness, coldness and weakness.

Babbitt’s beliefs in the physiological and healing powers of colors reach dizzying, unbelievable heights as he creates a new system of color healing where he documents simple colored lights curing even the most deadly of diseases and medical conditions. Not to mention his belief that a few special people can see an “Aura” or Odic Light around objects or people, and can read minds as well.

Babbitt’s color system is loosely based on the Subtractive color system that artist’s use, and follows the basics of Moses Harris’s system: Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colors that mix to make a secondary set of Orange, Green and Violet. He creates what looks like more of a color chart than a wheel illustrated in his book. Other Color Theorists expand upon the relationship of the colors to each other or elaborates on color harmonies, but Babbitt is more interested in particular properties he’s assigning to different colors.

               Red is a warm, stimulating color associated with the blood.
               Yellow/Orange are stimulating colors associated with the brain and central nervous system.
               Blue/Violet are cold, contracting colors to the overall system.

You might be wondering how Babbitt expects to heal with colors, and in the middle chapters of his book he introduces three of his Chromopathic inventions. The Chromolume, the Chromo-disk, and the Chromo-lens.

The Chromolume looks like a majestic stained glass window, made specifically with different colored glass sections to correspond with each area of the body. Treatment with the Chromolume consisted of placing the giant stained glass instrument in a sunny window and allowing the colored light to fall fully on the patient. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any pictures of a Chromolume – either no one today has made one, or is crazy enough to document it online!

The Chromo-disk is a simple device that shines light on specific parts of the body. Different colored lenses can be placed in front of the light depending on what kind of healing rays are needed. I’m not sure shining a colored light at any part of your body could cure a serious disease, but it is interesting that you can purchase simple light boxes and lamps that are proven to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The Chromo-lens was to me the strangest of Babbitt’s healing magic. These were just big lens-shaped bottles in different colors, meant to hold a liquid to imbibe it with the special powers of the colored light. Once a liquid was put in the bottle and exposed to light, it was ingested by the patient.

Other highlights of this book are the great imaginary way that Babbitt describes the atom and its parts, including intricate spirals that create frictional electricity and spectral colors and a vortex of whirling ethers passing through the center of the atom, and a pretty fantastical description of the magnetic and colorful fields generated by the human brain.

Definitely a different breed of book, and pretty safe to say this one will not appear in my list of top favorite Color Theory books! Still, I am glad to have read it for the different perspective on how Babbitt imagined colors to be important to human psychology and health.

Now! I am ready for the next book on the list - are you?

Friday, August 12, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: The Principles of Harmony and Contrasts of Colors

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

So far, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts by Michel Eugéne Chevreul has been the hardest book for me to read in this list. Not because Chevreul’s ideas were difficult to understand, but because of the incredible level of detail in his writing - like list, after list, after list of how colors interact together.

M. E. Chevreul was a brilliant and beloved French scientist in the field of chemistry, appointed to oversee the State controlled tapestry works Manufacture des Gobelins in 1824 by King Louis XVIII. Chevreul formed his ideas and principles about color interactions while working at The Gobelins while improving the dye laboratory, and learning the manufacturing process of weaving.

His book influenced countless artists (Pissarro, Monet, and Delacroix to name a few) as well as the overall Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism movements. The first edition of this book was published in 1839, and subsequently reprinted a number of times with a special edition in 1889 (to celebrate Chevreul’s 100th birthday!), a facsimile of the 1889 volume reprinted again in 1969, and finally the Faber Birren edition published with biographical information and commentary in 1987. I highly recommend reading the Birren edition if you can find it (check your library first, then see if there is a copy available through inter-library loan), the extra information was invaluable in getting through this meticulous volume.

Chevreul was aware of Newton’s theories of light, and mentions this early in his book. In explaining his own Color Theories, Chevreul focuses on the subtractive system of pigments where Red, Yellow and Blue form the primary colors.

His color system is comprised of a basic color wheel containing 72 distinct hues, and a dome or hemisphere in which the 72 color hues are represented in other tints and shades.

The color wheel at first may look similar to the Artist’s color wheels of today; it includes the three Primary colors (red, yellow, blue), three Secondary colors (orange, green, violet), and six Tertiary colors (red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-violet, violet-red). Each of these 12 sections is further broken down into 6 more divisions of color, making for a total of 72 individual hues. Chevreul felt his color wheel with 72 hues was the best to help determine true color relationships and harmonies.

His color sphere was an early attempt at a three dimensional color space, showing how the hues in his system mixed with black and white to create graduated shades at the top of the sphere, and graduated tints below.

Based on his color wheel and sphere, Chevreul put forth several laws and rules of colors, all cataloged in great detail.

The Law of Simultaneous Contrasts
Through many examples and experiments (that you can recreate yourself with Chevreul’s detailed instructions), he presents the theory of Simultaneous Contrast. This can present as a contrast of value, where light and dark values interact in different ways. This can also present as a contrast of hue, where different hues interact in different ways. In contrasts of hue, the visual perception of simultaneous contrast also takes effect, where one color can create the optical illusion of a second color – which can affect the overall appearance of the colors viewed. And now begins the exhaustive lists in which Chevreul attempts to catalog all the effects noted when colors interact.

Just as with the previous books on Color Theory, this author also holds complementary colors (those directly opposite each other on the color wheel) in high regard for their special, vivid properties.

Harmony of Colors
Here the author lists what he feels to be the most harmonious ways that we see colors. And there are many more lists in this section! In a nutshell, these harmonies are:

  • ·        One single, monotone color
  • ·        Two colors of the same value
  • ·        Analogous colors located next to each other on the color wheel
  • ·        Widely spaced colors located on the color wheel
  • ·        Various colors in the same tint, tone or shade
  • ·        Harmonies of contrasts consisting of the same color of different value, analogous colors of different value, or of very different colors of similar value
  • ·        Colors that look best when on a white, gray, or black ground
As if this wasn’t enough Color Theory to get artists motivated, the author continues on for several more chapters in his book with specific advice on how to use color when painting various subjects in virtually any lighting situation, when creating tapestry or textiles, printed fabrics, mosaics, stained glass, and staining or printing on paper. And, last but not least, Chevreul ends with a chapter on the subject of applying all of his theories to the specific practice of art criticism and appreciation.


While Moses Harris was considered an accomplished artist, his simple Color Theory booklet looks like a self-published zine next to this massive volume from Chevreul! It’s no wonder so many artists were influence by this book, especially those who worked with dots or spots of pure color applied directly to the canvas as a means to experiment with the interactions of colors described within these pages.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Are we asking the right questions?

This post is in direct reference to the conversation started by the Modern Quilt Guild’s controversial post about Derivative works here, and the many blog posts and comments that have followed.

I’ve had many conversations with fellow MQG members and friends over the last several days regarding not only the derivatives post, but all things MQG. I have seen many, many great questions raised, such as... Who decides if a quilt submitted is a derivative? When can you make the call if a quilt is a derivative? Is it even possible to make a quilt in which no other quilt or quilter ever in the history of man can be cited as an influence?

And in a conversation last night with a few mates, more questions were raised such as: Is our membership’s work really being represented as much as it could be at QuiltCon? If the juried show looks only at which quilts best represent modern quilting instead of how many members are getting a chance to participate, is that fair? Who’s interpretation of modern quilting is used to curate the quilts at QuiltCon?

And then this morning it hit me that these are all questions pointing to an even more important, larger question:

What is the purpose of The Modern Quilt Guild?

No, I’m not talking about the mission, this question goes deeper than that.

Here is one possible purpose:

The Modern Quilt Guild is an organization developed by members who wish to define modern quilting, its unique styles, variations, and esthetics in order to educate others as to what constitutes modern quilting as a whole. This organization realizes its purpose through:
  •  Offering members an exclusive way to learn about modern quilting styles, esthetics, and related techniques through an online community and locally authorized guilds.
  • Offering members educational information to learn about modern quilting and quilting related subjects (history, construction methods, techniques, styles, trends, etc.) through national MQG channels (blog posts, webinars, free quilt patterns and block tutorials, etc.)
  • Offering a selection of lectures, workshops and classes that aligns with the current definitions, styles and esthetics of modern quilting at the organization’s yearly event, QuiltCon.
  • Delineating the most current view of modern quilting by selecting only the best member’s work that most closely fits the current definition of modern quilting for exhibit in the organization’s yearly show, QuiltCon.
  •  Informing members at all levels (local, national and global) what the most current definition, styles and esthetics are associated directly with modern quilting.
  • The mission statement for the organization with this purpose could look exactly like our current MQG Mission Statement.

And here's a second possible purpose:

The Modern Quilt Guild is an organization developed by members who are passionate about modern quilting in order to connect, share, converse, learn, and support each other communally. This organization realizes its purpose through:
  • Supporting members desire to connect, share, and learn from each other by offering an open member’s only online community forum, and supports local guilds where members can meet-up in person.
  • Supporting members desire to learn by offering a variety of information about modern quilting and quilting related subjects (history, construction methods, techniques, styles, trends, etc.) through national MQG channels (blog posts, webinars, free quilt patterns and block tutorials, etc.)
  • Supporting members desire to showcase our current work by organizing a yearly member exhibit through QuiltCon which reflects as many different members as possible and as many different styles under the modern quilting umbrella as possible, with the overall goal of exhibiting quality work.
  •  Supporting members desire to learn more about modern quilting, quilt techniques and trends at each QuiltCon event by offering lectures, classes, workshops and demonstrations that are a mix of what members have requested as well as on-trend subjects that members may not yet be aware of.
  •  Reflecting the majority of the membership through change and growth by re-assessing the organization’s mission, purpose and goals. Requesting member feedback when making short and long term goals for the organization.
  • Reflecting membership views at the national and global level as to what the most current definition, styles or esthetics are associated with modern quilting.
  • The mission statement for the organization with this purpose could look exactly like our current MQG Mission Statement.

Yes, you’re probably thinking of things I didn’t even list, or maybe you have different ideas, or perhaps you think I’m totally full of shit right now! All great feedback, and please let me know in the comments what you are thinking in regards to what the MQG's bigger purpose is.

Personally, I like the second option above, and feel that giving the most people a voice can only strengthen a group. Funny, in my mind I thought that’s the way we were all headed as a group. Obviously, there’s lots of room for improvement if the MQG is going to reach that point.

There are some people who have realized they no longer (or never did) feel a sense of belonging in the MQG have left the group publicly. Others have not said as much, but are thinking about leaving. Obviously, if you’re part of something that is not giving you joy, purpose, or you no longer feel an affiliation with, it’s definitely time to think about moving on.

At any rate, now is the time to stand up and speak out about what you think. In recent communications with the MQG, I’ve learned that in all the social media conversations, comments, and confusion going on, there hasn’t been very much official feedback emailed directly to the MQG. And it may sound counter intuitive that all this online stuff may not be considered official feedback, but I’m telling you that this is how it is.

So, this post is me standing up and speaking out to you directly. Please, if you feel strongly enough in The Modern Quilt Guild to want to see this conversation through, start really talking to your fellow mates and friends about what exactly you don’t like, and what kind of changes you want to see in the organization. Even if you've already decided to leave, speak out about your thoughts on the organization. Give your feedback directly to the organization, and include as many concrete examples of what makes you unhappy or new ideas that would make things better that you can. Don’t just send your feedback as an email to one person; send your message to your Guild President and local Board, send it to your National Regional Rep, and send it to the National Board.

I plan to start this conversation with our guild as a whole, and I am anxious to see what comes out of the conversation. I am planning to collect my thoughts and send feedback myself, but I am also exploring the option of getting together with others from my guild to send feedback as a group, or possible as the official guild.

I'd like to hope that if you feel strongly enough to post your thoughts and ideas publicly, you'll also send it directly to the organization and let your thoughts be heard officially.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Who Was Faber Birren?

In our exploration of 300+ Years of Color Theory, the name of Faber Birren will start to appear often. So, before moving forward through our Color Theory reading list, let’s pause to discover the contributions made to the study of color by Birren.

Recommended reading - an awesome article all about Faber Birren Biography from 

Born in Chicago on September 11, 1900 to artistic parents, Faber Birren studied Color Theory at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. He became an expert in the field, settling in New York City where he offered his expertise to many in the field of design and home furnishings, and served some of the biggest American industrial clients such as General Motors.

Through his studies, Faber Birren read as many early texts on Color Theory as he could find, and eventually published several of his own. Although his own books such as Principles of Color, Color Perception in Art, and Creative Color were expertly written, they did not rise to the popularity of other Color Theory texts by Joseph Albers and Johannes Itten.

Although some of Birren’s own books are included in this Color Theory reading list, he played a more important role in making sure several previously published volumes are still available by editing, adding valuable notes, and republishing Color Theory books out-of-print in his day.

What’s most awesome about these books is that you’re more likely to run across a Birren edited copy than an original, which means you’ll gain the insight and extra information he’s added to each volume (not to mention a bit of biographical information on each of the original authors).

So while we’ll look forward to reading some of Birren’s own ideas in his books soon, we can start enjoying his insights immediately as the next book on the reading list, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast ofColors and Their Applications to the Arts by M. E. Chevreul is a revised Birren edition including a special introduction and extra commentary.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: Theory of Colours

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German author, most famous for his poetry and epic drama, Faust. He also published scientific articles and books such as The Metamorphosis of Plants, and this volume on color. 

Goethe was familiar with Newton’s book Opticks, both conducting some of the same experiments with sunlight and prisms. Newton asked the question why do these colors appear, and answered using the scientific method with the discovery of the visualspectrum of light. Goethe asks instead where do these colors come from, and answers with a very psychological approach based on his own observations.

As mentioned in the last post, most 18th and early 19th Century Color Theorists didn’t fully understand Newton’s ideas based on the system of colored light. Goethe was pretty sure that Newton had got it wrong when he said,

“Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colors are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in the subject.

But how I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some color, then at last, around the window sill all the colors shone... It didn't take long before I knew here was something significant about color to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false.”

Throughout Theory of Colours, Goethe doesn’t hesitate to hurl more insults at Newton:

“A great mathematician was possessed with an entirely false notion on the physical origins of color; yet, owing to his great authority as a geometer, the mistakes which he committed as an experimentalist long became sanctioned in the eyes of a world ever fettered in prejudices.”

“Go ahead, split the light! You try to separate, as you often have, that which is one and remains one in spite of you.”

This just begs for someone to pit Newton against Goethe in an Epic RapBattle of History

Besides the mentions of Newton’s theories, it is also evident that Goethe was aware of The Natural System ofColors by Moses Harris. Goethe makes direct reference to Harris’ system as being correct for painters (more about this below).

This book was definitely influential to 19th century artists, most notably the English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner who scribbled notations throughout his own copy of Thoery of Colours, and clearly put these theories to good use on canvas.

Goethe’s approach to Color Theory is completely unique. His ideas begin with an age-old and mystic view of the appearance of color from the Greeks, mixed with his own perceptions and observations.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed colors emerge out of the struggle between light and darkness.

When ancient Greeks looked upward at the night sky, they saw darkness before the light of day. At sunrise, the sky begins to move through a whole series of colors; from deep blues to purples, reds, oranges and finally bright yellow of the sun in a bright blue sky. In Aristotle’s Color Theory, just as the colors in the skies appear between the darkness of night and the light of day, all the colors we perceive emerge from light and dark.

With this idea in mind, Goethe also uses his personal observations to build his particular brand of Color Theory.

Have you ever looked through a prism before? Try it - It’s a little like looking through a time machine, you’ll see some of the same things both Newton and Goethe did hundreds of years ago!

Below are two of Goethe’s basic experiments. Grab a prism, some paper, and a black marker to see for yourself.

Draw a black square on a sheet of white paper. Then add several black bars that grow closer and closer together under the square.

Look at the black square through a prism. See exactly what Goethe saw; a bright cyan blue band appears at one end of the square, turning to a deep purple as it touches the black. At the other end, a yellow band appears, moving towards red as it touches the black.

Look at the black lines, and where the lines move closer together you can see other colors appear (as the yellow at the top of one black line mix with the blue at the bottom of the other). Goethe surmises, just as the ancient Greeks, that all colors arise from darkness and light.

Color Wheel:

Goethe’s color wheel arises from only two basic colors; blue and yellow. These are the same bright blue and yellow seen when looking through a prism in the experiments above, or at the sun in a clear blue sky. In his wheel, cyan blue and yellow meet at the bottom to form green. Moving to the top of the wheel, cyan blue deepens to form dark blue and purple, while yellow deepens to create orange and red. Red and purple meet at the top of the wheel to form magenta.

Goethe notes that “Hence the painter is justified in assuming that there are three primitive colors from which he combines all others. The natural philosopher, on the other hand, assumes only two elementary colors, from which he, in like manner, develops and combines the rest.”

Goethe’s Laws of Color Harmonies:
Goethe established basic laws of harmony of colors, all of which are still considered standard color compositions in today’s color wheels.

Complementary Combinations:
Harris called colors across from each other on a color wheel with special properties color opposites. Goethe calls these color combinations the completeness of color, which as you’ve probably guessed, has become our modern day theory of complementary colors.

Using the same experiments that Harris writes about in his book, Goethe explains the sensation of Successive and Simultaneous contrast in human vision. Based on these phenomenon, he theorizes that when the human eye sees one individual color, it seeks balance by producing the complemental hue from the color wheel. The eyes cannot be said to be adversely affected by viewing one singular color according to Goethe, because:

“We now observe that the demand for completeness, which is inherent in the organ, frees us from this restraint: the eye relieves itself by producing the opposite of the single color forced upon it, and thus attains the entire impression which is so satisfactory to it.”

These color combinations are purely harmonious and will always carry the conditions of completeness with them. Just draw a line through the center of the color wheel, and the two ends will point directly to a pair of complements, such as red/green or purple/yellow.

Characteristic Combinations:
These are combinations Goethe describes as chords. Not quite as harmonious as complementary combinations, but they do have some merit. These colors live on his color wheel one color space apart from each other, such as red/blue, or blue/yellow.

Non-characteristic Combinations:
These are combinations using colors right next to each other around the wheel, you may be better acquainted with this combination as Analogous. Goethe makes note that although these combinations are too much alike to fulfill the balance of complementary colors, they do represent a progressive state, and may “produce no unpleasant effect," such as green/yellow or red/orange.

So, from Newton’s first color wheel and Harris’ first subtractive wheel and mention of color opposites, Goethe’s theories further the established color harmonies of Complementary, Analogous, and color combinations picked at regular intervals from around the wheel.

If you are interested, this book is an easy read, and is still in print if you’d like a new or used copy of your own. You may be able to find a free online copy through Google Books if you look. You can also find a free audiobook version here, not the best reading – but understandable and free!