Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Colours - theories and practice

I've been meaning to get back to writing about colour, and hanging up multi-coloured Christmas lights in our front window on the evening of the winter solstice brought back many thoughts about colour.

There is a fashion for blue Christmas lights. A nearby town has a magnificent tall Christmas tree, it passes muster in daylight, but at night the sole decoration tiny blue lights leave it looking dingy, dull and mean. Not what I call Christmassy, no spirit of joy, of giving and sharing. It looks like they couldn't really be bothered (who are they? the councillors? some official with a small budget?). I don't name the town - it's local and I'm ashamed of it.

There is no doubt colour and colour choices are important. Everyone knows their own likes and dislikes for different colours in different places. I realised recently, when discussing colour samplers, that I have been building my own ideas about colour interactions steadily over many years, and I take what I know for granted.

Because my understanding of colour is in patterns in my mind, and because colour is a complex subject, I found to my surprise that I lacked words and phrases for talking about my views on colour.

So what could I say to someone else about colour? This is where I feel comfortable:
  • I can talk a bit about rainbows and the spectrum colours when white light is split with a glass prism.
  • I know the terms "warm" and "cool" and associate them with the colours of hot things and colours of cold things.
  • I know that colour temperature relates to how "white" a light is and gives an indication of a tint towards yellow or blue.
  • I know that colours look different in different lights.
  • I know that in my box of drawing pastels, where each colour is available in 5 tints, no. 3 is pure pigment, 2 and 1 have white added and 4 and 5 have black added.
  • I know that pigments in paints and dyes interact with each other differently to mixing colours of light.

That seems like a reasonable list now I write it down. But I didn't seem to be able to explain to other people how I choose colours and how I predict what combinations I decide will work together, and I was shaky on the details of the above - like how to explain why pigments behave as they do, what light temperature is about, what happens with different colours under different lights.

This set me off in two directions however, both seemed to involve buying more books! (I find it hard to ignore any excuse for another book.) I read a lot, learnt a lot, got a bit confused and then ended up about where I started!

I learnt that colour theory in relation to making colour choices seemed to take off at the end of the 19th century, and that modern "colour theory" crystallized with the Bauhaus movement and teaching. Since early 20th century, "colour theory" has been passed on often with little of the context or background for the theories. Some modern colour theory books present us only with a set rules and no reasoning. Personally I react against rules without reasons. I was born to ask "why" and remember getting into trouble on many occasions in my childhood for insisting on having "why" answered, and refusing to obey rules that had no whys!

Hunting through bibliographies and references to ever older texts on colour brought me to the purchase of two lovely old books.

Colour Matching on Textiles: a manual intended for the use of dyers, calico printers, and textile colour chemists, by David Paterson, published by Scott, Greenwood & Co., London, 1901,


Colour in Woven Design: being a treatise on the science and technology of textile colouring, by Roberts Beaumont, published by Whittaker & Co. of London and New York in 1912.

The first is a lovely old text book, written for those in the trades named in the title, and begins at the beginning - by looking at how the human eye perceives colours with full description of the parts of the eye and how the eye works. Chapter 1 is all about this, chapter 2 is about the qualities of different natural daylight sources (artificial light sources are not mentioned until chapter 8) Chap. 3 is on hues and purity of colour, other chapters are specifically about dye matching for textiles.

This book introduced the name of a man who seems to have been one of the first to try and develop rules about how different colours interact when used together: the French chemist M. E Chevreul.

Principles of the Harmony and Contrast of Colours and Their Application to the Arts, M.E. Chevreul, 2nd edition pub. 1855, Longman & Brown.
(Fairly recently republished in the U.S.)

It was Monsieur Chevreul, a chemist in charge of the dyeing department of the famous Gobelins tapestry workshops in France who seems to have been the first to examine why, in the words of David Patterson "a colour may appear rich and saturated in one pattern, and yet appear dull and wanting in vigour when put into another pattern with a different scheme of colouring". This seems to be the root of our modern colour wheel organised theory. I tracked down an early edition of this book at a second hand book shop. It was priced at £50 and not in good condition, so I did not buy, but I was interested to hold a copy of this book and see what it contained and how it was organised. M. Chevreul developed his theories of colour behaviour based on close examination, and it seems asking everyone who came near him to take a look at different colour combinations and say what they thought (reminded me of my optician asking which colour is brighter now, red or green, and now...?) His book ends with chapters applying his ideas to different arts, e.g. a chapter on weaving giving recommendations for ways to use colours in stripes in order to produce pleasing results.

By the time Roberts Beaumont writes in 1912 he describes different well known and recognised theories of colour, and this book is very much a practical handbook for textile designers. He deals with Theories of Colour, Attributes of Colour, Contrast and Harmony in the first three chapters, then following "Colour Standardisation" he is on to chapters about weaving cloth with stripes, checks, compound colourings, spotted effects, etc.

This is a similar approach to that of:
William Watson, in Textile Design and Colour, pub. Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd, my 6th edition dated 1954.

Meanwhile, another line in development of colour theories is beginning as Johannes Itten, born in 1888, started studied painting and colour formally in 1913. He joined the famous Bauhaus as a master and was there 1919 to 1923, developing a course on form and colour. Itten's major contribution to colour theory was:
The Art of Colour, by Johannes Itten, pub. 1944
I have before me now (from the local library) the abbreviated version of this work (condensed text of the above, without the original colour plates):
The Elements of Color, edited and with a forword and evaluation by Faber Birren, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1970.
Reading this book, about complimentary colours, contrasts etc. I find that more recent books on colour theory seem to add nothing to what is here. If you want to study colour theory, this is probably about the best book. If you want to play with colours and see how they behave for yourself, then I think it is worthwhile also having:
Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers, published by Yale University Press, 1963
which provides a course to work through to study and learn about colour interactions by experience.
(I was able to get a copy of this through my local library also).

The only more recent book I think well worth a mention is:
Dyeing to Knit, by Elaine Eskesen, published by Down East Books, 2005, ISBN 0-89272-667-9 and ISBN 978-089272-667

Why don't I mention others? Because certain other authors use the colour wheel based theories as rigid rules without applying judgement and common sense and produce a lot of combinations which to me look like mud, or shades of grey. One particular author gives no bibliography and no history so it is as if she made it all up by herself. I mention no names, yes, she is famous and everyone else likes her and will jump up and protest at my words if I mention her name. So I don't. I just say, use your own eyes, your own common sense, decide for yourself and don't follow blindly.

Now I like Elaine Eskesen because she attributes the ideas in modern colour theory to their originators, quotes Chevereul, includes Ittens and the Faber Birren Elements of Colour in her bibliography so you know where her ideas come from. Then she adds something of her own, she explains ideas that have evolved through working for many years in using dyes and using dyed yarns. I like a section in the book where she has given some very different yarns she has dyed to famous knitters and they have knitted something and then comment on the yarn and the colours.

So should you go out and buy any of these? That's up to you, I'd say borrow them from a library or a friend, read them through, then move on. I think that understand colour theory ought to be at background level when you are designing. I would compare studying colour theory together with learning scales as part of learning to play a musical instrument, useful, but not an end in itself.

I like the way people put colours together by looking at a favourite picture, and saying "here are some colours I like to see together", or collecting a little pile of coloured objects, or coloured pieces of paper, cloth or yarns, or a coloured sketch of something they have seen, and then saying "I will use these colours".

Also, I like to read about Bonnie Tarses' amazing colour combinations, which always seem to work (she talks about it in WeaveCast episode 9) I think part of the secret of this is good quality yarn colours.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention, Bernat Klein developed a theory of his own that the colours that suit a person are the colours to be found in the irises of their eyes. An interesting idea. I wonder, does it work for you, reader? Comments welcome! I neither strongly agree nor disagree with this, but I would say that for a person with chestnut to strawberry-blonde type red hair, as I have had (now fading) with very blue eyes, this doesn't quite work. My best colours are greens and autumn shades, but then I seem to recall he said somewhere that the red-haired are an exception to the rule.

Season's greetings to all.


Bonnie said...

I am more than honored to be mentioned in this beautiful post. I have never known how to talk about color, so I will certainly reference this post and quote you in future.

Barbara Blundell said...

Hope you have fully recovered from the virus,Dorothy.
Found your post very interesting.Do you think that some people have an innate sense of colour and know instinctively which colours together give pleasing results? I say this because I once worked with a lovely child who was not particularly bright but was highly praised by the art department for her use of colour.

Leigh said...

I haven't been blog visiting for at least a week. I love the new look of your blog! (Including the link to your book reviews - great resource.)

But in regards to color - color is what it's all about! Your post is very interesting because to me, color is so subjective and emotionally based. To try to explain that in words is quite thought provoking. To be honest, I don't know why I'm drawn to certain colors. I also didn't know there were different approaches to color theory. You've piqued my interest.

Dorothy said...

Thanks for the comments. I still thinking about colour a lot, I'm sure I have more to say as I can get my thoughts organised.

Barbara's question is one that I think we could discuss at length. My Aunt who is an artist has memories of colours of things from the days when she was in a pram. I'm sure that some children are particularly interested in colour / pictures and learn a lot through this interest in their early years. Are they born with the interest, or does something trigger it?

Willington Weaver said...

Hi Dorothy

what a very thought provoking post, with some interesting references, thanks.
I agree that some people use colour theory as a rigid rule. I believe that if colour works in nature then it will work in design, if you use the same proportions, so I find my inspiration, work out the proportions and off I go!