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!

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