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!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: The Natural System of Colors

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

The Natural System of Colors by Moses Harris, first published C. 1776

Moses Harris was an English Entomologist with an interest in in dragonflies, moths and butterflies. His experience with color was direct; he was an accomplished artist who hand-painted his scientific engravings as realistically as possible.

There is evidence that Harris’ theories had influenced artists at the time, most notably the great English landscape painter J. M. W.Turner. Turner, who was very interested in Color Theory, sketched his own copy of the Harris Prismatic color wheel including the three overlapping triangles around 1825.

Less than a handful of original books have survived, making this the rarest book in the Color Theory book list. Because the original copies of the hand-painted color wheels number so few, there has been some debate over the original intent and meaning in Harris’ color wheel.

It is obvious Harris was aware of Newton’s work on color in Opticks.  He refers to Newton on page 3 as the first to take the prismatic colors and bend them into a wheel, placed in a successive color order “which nature seems to demand.” Just like so many other 18th and 19th Century Color Theorists, Harris didn’t fully understand the differences between his own ideas based on the perception of colored pigments,  and Newton’s ideas based on the system of colored light.

Color Wheel
Harris’ system is comprised of three basic color, red, yellow, and blue, which he believes can be used to create all other variety of colors. This is what we know as the subtractive color system today.  Also known as the RYB system or the Artist’s Color Wheel, this system is used to assist in mixing paints, inks, and dyes. Following the Color Theory bread crumb trail from current times, the color wheel first published by Harris is still used in a similar form today.

Harris breaks his color system down into two separate color wheels. The first he names Prismatic, which is based on his three Grand Primitive colors RED, YELLOW, and BLUE.

The three Primitive colors take the form of triangles in the center, overlapping to create black. Note that the wedge-shaped colors around the wheel are numbered, beginning with red at number 1, continuing through the wheel in successive color mixes between the three Primitives to number 18. Moving from the inside of the wheel out, the colors grow from a darker shade to a lighter tint in established rings numbered from 20-2 (counting by 2’s). The 18 colors represented in 20 different shades displays a total of 360 different colors.

Mixing any two of the three Primitive colors together will produce a second set of colors (red + yellow = orange, yellow + blue = green, blue + red = purple) which Harris calls the Mediates. His Compound color wheel is based on mixes of the Mediate colors, ORANGE, GREEN, and PURPLE. The wheel is organized exactly as the first, resulting in a range of 360 different colors.

In these photos taken from an original copy of the book, notice the use of printed lines around the circle to add darker shading to each color, and the delicate use of applying the paint to create light washes. The resulting effect is a darkening of the colors towards the center, and lighter colors at the outside perimeter. The Harris Prismatic color wheel was later illustrated in other books about color, sometimes printed without the delicate shading, sometimes with fewer gradations of shading, and sometimes without any color at all. It seems certain the original intention was to show the many tints and shades of each color, as Harris mentions more than once the number of the colors in his wheel to be 360.

Theory of Opposites
Harris is the first to write about the attributes of what we know as Complementary colors. Colors opposite each other on the wheel have special properties when used together. He notes that these colors make the strongest contrast when used right next to each other. Two opposites cannot be mixed together to create a new color, as a mix results in “…a dirty unmeaning color.” Therefore, since opposite colors on the wheel do not mix, any colors that you may want to mix together will work better the closer they are to each other on the wheel.

Finally, Harris adds two examples to support the special qualities of his color opposites, a very early example from a Color Theorist of both Successive and Simultaneous Contrast.

First, an experiment in successive contrast, “If a pair of green spectacles are placed before the eyes, and viewed through for about five minutes, and then taken away every scene and object will look of a fiery red, opposite to green you will find red.”

Next, an experiment in simultaneous contrast where a candle is placed on a white sheet of paper bathed in the light of the moon. “The candle by its light may throw the shadow of the stick on the paper, which will be of a very fine blue color, this appearance arises from the orange color which the flame of the candle casts all over the paper, except that part shadowed by the stick. Look into the prismatic system which will account for this, by informing the reader that blue is the contrast to orange.”

While Newton gave us the first Color Wheel, Harris gives us the first working model of a subtractive color system to include tints and shades, and writes about his perception of the power of opposite colors in his wheel, the Complementary colors.

At just 10 pages long, this book is an easy read and I highly recommend it! While this may be one of the hardest Color Theory books to actually get your hands on, if you have a Google account and Google Reader, you can grab the book for free right here.

Friday, July 8, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: Opticks

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

Opticks by Sir Isaac Newton, first published in 1704

Don’t let this book fool you, it’s not as difficult a read as you might think. This book is filled with detailed descriptions of Newton’s famous experiments he started in 1666 with prisms, lenses, reflection and diffraction. While Newton does not proclaim himself a Color Theorist, his discoveries are a clear first-step in understanding human perception of color. He does also create one of the first circular color systems in which countless colors can be plotted and identified. Newton and his ideas and theories on color would influence other Color Theorists for years to come, in good ways and in bad. Some people loved Newton’s ideas and celebrated them, and others grew to revile both the man and his ideas.

In Book I—Part I, Newton proposes and proves the properties of light by reason and experiment. His approach to light and color here are scientific; he’s not buying the previous popular explanation that colors formed by white light shining through a prism are inherent within the prism, and caused by impurities in the glass. And he’s definitely up to the challenge.

From his multiple experiments, Newton conducts an exhaustive study of the colors seen when white light is refracted through a prism. At one point, he puts a piece of white paper down and draws lines where he sees a separation in the colors (even inviting another in who has an eye for color to also draw lines where one color ends and the next begins). After much thought on these color separations (which he likens to notes in a musical scale), he decides that there are 7 major colors. He names these colors Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.

To Newton, the 7 major chords or colors he has named are his “Primary Colors.” This idea of Primaries will develop to mean the basic building block of a color system in later years. He writes very briefly about the mixing of colors within the wheel, noting that the Primaries mix together to create all the other colors, and also that mixing colors across from one another on the wheel creates a color “not be perfectly white, but some faint anonymous color. For I could never yet by mixing only two primary colors produce a perfect white.”

In Book I—Part II, take a look at Proposition VI—Problem II, Newton describes his color wheel as such:

“In a mixture of Primary Colors, the Quantity and Quality of each being given, to know the Colour of a Compound.”

Within Newton’s circle, let each section represent one of the major sections assigned to the spectrum: AB = Blue, BC = Indigo, CD = Violet, DE = Red, EF = Orange, FG = Yellow, and GA = Green. These are the colors of the spectrum passing into one another as when the spectrum is passed through a prism, representing the whole series of colors from the red end of the spectrum to the violet. Each section contains all degrees of the color, the mid-point representing the truest of that color, moving towards one line or the other representing a mixture. The point r in FG representing the true yellow, the line representing more of an orange-yellow, and the line G representing a more yellow-green.

Newton saw proportionally different amounts of colors in the spectrum, and preserved these proportions within the color wheel. The center of the wheel O represents white light. The line YO moving from the center out is meant to plot the intensity or tint of the color; fully saturated at Y and completely white at O. Thus, any color could be plotted on this circle by first finding the mixture of the color hue in the outer ring, then moving in to the center to represent the amount of white added to the color. He also notes that while the red and violet combine to create shades of purple (magenta), these colors do not appear within the spectrum as viewed through the prism.

Newton gives an example of plotting a color within this circle, and then notes that while this is a system that can be used to plot colors perceived by the senses, it is not a mathematically accurate system.

This basic Color Theory model, with colors organized in hue-order around a color wheel (fully saturated at the outer ring and changing in tint towards a white center), will be used again in other systems and become a base for some of the most famous systems still in use today.

For fun, check out the Color Calculator, a modern RGB version of Newton’s wheel. The tool will give you the RGB codes for any color you choose, and allows you to play with established color harmonies. 

Newton was the first to discover the truth about light; white light is made up of a full spectrum of colored light, each color different from the others. He goes further to propose that all the colors in the universe come from these individual colors within the light, and that we see color in objects because they inherently reflect back only certain colors of light. His ideas were so incredibly close to what we now understand about light and the visual spectrum, theories that were proven over 100+ years after the publication of Opticks.

If you’re interested, you can find this book for free online, it’s still in-print so you can purchase a new or used copy through your favorite online seller, or find a copy through your local library.

My reading advice to you is to focus on Book I - Part II, as this is where Newton’s ideas and theories that apply to Color Theory are. Pay special attention to Proposition II-Theory II, and Proposition VI-Problem II. Then, if you’re up to it, tackle the rest of the book!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: The Reading List

Okay. So for the past few years I’ve been reading just about any book I can get my hands on about Color Theory!

I started by re-reading Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, because it has been like the Color Theory “Bible” to me. It includes all the basic principles I learned about mixing colors when studying painting as a Fine Arts student. Itten does refer to some other Color Theorists in his book, but when I really began reading other books, I discovered that many of the ideas and theories in Itten’s book go way, way back.

And as I was reading and re-reading several Color Theory books, I also noted an explosion of color information made especially for quilters (for which I am one), from basic blog posts to books, classes and workshops, and tools like color wheels and color matching tools.

You may have heard of Katie Pasquini Masopust, Heather Thomas, or Joen Wolfrom (see their color wheels below)—all of whom have built a business on Color Theory for Quilters.

I also noticed that some people were taking this new interest in Color Theory very seriously! Some were saying that one system was the best or the only right system, or that certain color combinations were the best to use over others, or even that we have been using the “wrong” color system all along. I’ve heard of the dreaded Quilt Police, but who knew there were also Color Theory Police!

So, with all this in mind, I’ve decided to read (and re-read) all of the most influential books published on Color Theory over the past 300+ years. Not only to see where we’ve been, but to better understand how we’ve arrived where we are with Color Theory, and get a glimpse of what’s next.

This is your formal invitation to join me if you’d like! While I can’t make a hard-and-fast reading schedule (because life just happens), I do plan on posting a short schedule of which book I am reading, and which one or two are next on the list. I’m also planning a short write-up of each book here at my blog, to highlight the most important points in each book and most importantly to follow the trail of breadcrumbs from our current view of Color Theory back to the beginnings.

The 15 or so books that will be the focus of this Color Theory Book Club are some of the most influential, having greatly influenced artists and even entire artistic movements, and have all had a part in weaving together our modern view on color.

Some of these books are completely free online, some are still readily available for purchase, some are still available to read at your library, and a few are very unfortunately out of print. Without further hesitation, let's get reading!

300+ Years of Color Theory Reading List

Books that have been read are hyper-linked, click over to learn more!

3. Theory of Colors by Johann Wolfgang vonGoethe, first published in 1810


4. The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors, and Their Applications to The Arts by M. E. Chevreul, first published in 1839


5. The Principles of Light and Color by Edwin D. Babbitt, first published in 1878

    More to come - stay tuned!

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Little Fun with Skull Blocks

This is another experiment spurred on by the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild's meeting all about the drunkard's path block. For some reason the shape of skulls carved into early American grave markers that I saw in Charlotte, SC last summer made me think of using this accuquilt drunkard's path die to make some skull blocks.

My sketch for this one was pretty basic - I just wanted to try and see what it would look like. Seems just replacing one of the four blocks with a "jawbone" would create a skull shape.

I stitched up a tester block late one night. This was also a great opportunity for me to play with free-motion quilting. Because it's not my style, I am primarily a straight line quilter! And seriously, FMQ is a bit intimidating.

The test block turned out pretty dang good! Next I wanted to see how the blocks would look stitched up with a patterned fabric, and how they would fit together. I dug out some vintage bright colored scraps from the scrap bin (I may have had springtime on my mind, because it looks a lot like spring fabric, right?).

I used free-motion stitches to add features to each of the skulls. It started to look festive and sugar-skull-like, so I filled in around with some flowers and leaves, and I finished it off to be a little springtime skull mini-quilt.

I don't know what will happen next with this idea, or if I will take this any further, but it was definitely a fun little experiment!