Sunday, July 10, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: COLORITTO


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


Above is an example of a J. C. Le Blon color print, Narcissus c. 1720.

J.C. Le Blon is the inventor of the first tricolor printing process using Red/Yellow/Blue and sometimes Black and the first to establish the principles of the RYB color system. He explains his theory in COLORITTO, originally published circa 1720. You can read a free copy of Coloritto online right here.



Le Blon is a very interesting character in the story of color theory. Jacob Christoph (or James Christopher, or Jakob Christoffel, or just J. C.) was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1667 into a creative family of artists and printmakers. Le Blon himself was an accomplished artist, supporting himself early in his career by painting miniature portraits. As the story goes, Le Blon moved to London around 1715 and applied for a special patent for his three color printing process. He opened a storefront called The Picture Office to sell his prints with the ambitious idea that more people would be able to afford art in the form of a less expensive color print (as opposed to the cost of an original oil painting or work of art).

While Le Blon seemed to be relatively successful in his tricolor printing methods, his business ventures were all complete failures. History reports that he died in 1741 near obscurity, in poverty, with others taking the credit for his innovative ideas and printing process.

First, a look at his invention of a three (or four) color printing process. Le Blon was incredibly secretive about his methods, and never left any written notes about exactly how he created his prints. There were a few people who published some notes about his process, and most of what is known today come from these accounts.


His printing process has been described as a multi-colored mezzotint process that looked a lot like modern halftone color reproduction. A mezzotint is a printing process using a flat metal plate. Rough areas of the plate grab and hold the ink or paint resulting in colored areas of the print, and smooth areas without color resulted in light areas of the print. He created three or four different plates for each print; one for the color yellow, one for the color blue, and one for the color red. (His use of a fourth plate for black seems to be debatable. He seems to have insisted on using only three colors, but it’s a fact that you cannot produce a sharp, deep black color with only red, yellow, and blue. There is also at least one account of an assistant to Le Blon mentioning the occasional use of a fourth black plate.)

This means that contrary to what we’re told about the history of printing—that Herbert E. Ives invented tricolor printing in 1881—J. C. Le Blon really invented the first successful tricolor printing process 150 years earlier using Red/Yellow/Blue and Black (and definitely influenced Ives CMYK process). This totally blew my mind!

It's also true that artists had been aware of using the primary colors red/yellow/and blue in mixing colors for centuries, but no one had previously published a book about it. So Le Blon gets credit as the first ever to publish a book about the RYB color system for painting as well!

Also in the totally amazing category, Le Blon seems to have an understanding of the difference between combinations of colored pigments (subtractive color) and colored lights (additive color). He directly references Newton's Opticks and writes that "material" colors used by painters combine together to create black, while "impalpable" colors of light combine together to create white.

Keep in mind Newton's theory of light was an extremely difficult idea for people to grasp at the time, and most people (artists included) thought it was total baloney. A century after Le Blon published Coloritto we see Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was still railing against this concept of white light containing colored light in his book Theory of Colours.

Le Blon describes how the three colors red, yellow, and blue can be mixed to create “all other visible colors.” He calls the three stand-alone colors in this system red, yellow, and blue the PRIMITIVE colors, talks about how each of the three can mix to form a new color, and how a mixture of the three results in black—but lacks to illustrate his system with a chart or color wheel. In fact, this is the only book in the reading list that does not include some kind of wheel or other illustration, although you can almost picture the 6 color primary/secondary wheel as Le Blon describes mixing of these colors.


His book was originally published in two languages, French language printed recto and English language printed verso in the 1720's. This original publication was 8 1/2" x 11" and included a series of color prints. The book was reprinted in France again in 1756, this time in a smaller format and without the prints. We can give thanks to Faber Birren for resurrecting this book by reprinting it yet again in 1980 with a nice forward and biography about Le Blon. The Birren version is out of print but there are still copies to be had, you just need to keep your eyes open!

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