Color, General

History of Color

Chevreul’s Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors

Every once in awhile I dream up classes to teach to  book art students. My recent one would be on the history of color—which may come as no surprise to anyone who knows me and my fascination with this topic, but I believe there really is more to this idea than just my own personal passions (and the fact that I would find this such a fun class to teach!).

Think what apt training this would be for book art students seeing how, like book arts itself, it sits at the crossroads between several different disciplines. For one thing, the history of color could serve as a focal point to combine issues in the history of the book with those in the history of art.  Developments in pigments, dyes, and inks have had profound effects on both book production (think, for instance, of Gutenberg’s development of oil-based ink) and painting (where would the Impressionists have been without their new synthetic paints in tubes?). Currently, book art programs still tend to be framed around traditional divisions. We teach the history of the book (I, in fact, teach the history of the book—I’m not exactly knocking that), but if we want to encourage students to think of the book in radically different ways, shouldn’t we also be teaching from a perspective that shows its history intersecting and intertwining with that of art instead? Or perhaps even more to the point, show how it overlaps with entirely different disciplines (so often set up in false dichotomies): the relationship between color-making and alchemy, medicine, chemistry, not to mention industrial manufacturing, has a rich history.

Raphael’s Leo X with Cardinals

When you scrape your ink knife across the top of that can of ink and pull out a lovely red, are you thinking of aspirin? (Bayer began by making paints as well as pharmaceuticals, and mauve, of course, was discovered by accident in the search to cure malaria)  or perhaps you are imagining the little bugs gathered off of cactus plants in the new world and crushed to dye the cardinal’s robes crimson (and still used to color that Campari you’re fond of sipping on a hot summer day) and the subsequent development of the field of organic chemistry in the search to find a synthetic substitute for that brilliant red.

The yellow to blue oxidation process of indigo

Speaking of intersections, in this dream class I am teaching at a dream school that does not pigeon-hole courses as  either history/theory or studio but never both.  In my dream class the students would move back and forth equally between seminars and practical experiments. We live in a era that presumes color ubiquity and yet the entire history of color has been one of overcoming the physical, economic, geographical, etc. limitations of color. And to really understand this you need to get your hands into it. You have to work with malachite to see how the finer you grind the lighter the green gets – color and texture unremittingly tied in a frustratingly inverse relationship.  Once you’ve made a lake or experimented with dyes it becomes transparent how fortunes could be built on the control of alum mines (the Medicis held the papal monopoly). And of course the urge to incorporate color into books and the endless problems thereof is one of the more interesting parts of this story.  History comes alive in the studio, the studio is enriched by theory, why leave the connections to be made between the classes, not in them?

Goethe’s Theory of Colours

And then, of course, there is color theory. Raised as so many of us were on the 64-box of Crayola crayons and an idealized, simplified theory of color (yellow+blue=green) we are often unduly ignorant of the complexities of color theory, let alone the art of color mixing. I wonder how many book art students could tell you the differences between Newton and Goethe, Rood and Munsell? And how many could speak at length about what they consider to be the primary colors and why? (they aren’t necessarily red, yellow, and blue—really).  Doesn’t the best learning come when we break open our assumptions. It is hard to fully understand what we know until we have seen it questioned and the more we know the more we can do interesting things with our printing. Spot color layering, CMYK printing, pantone mixing, color wheels—what do you gain, what do you lose with each?  Systems entail choices and choices entail compromises. It seems all the more pertinent, as many students increasingly use the computer for pre-press operations, to understand the difference between additive and subtractive color systems or to recognize that moving from RGB to CMYK involves more  than just choosing a menu option. Hmm, did I just hear the word gamut float across the breeze…?  And we haven’t even begun to talk about the physiology of color and how our brains interpret and respond to it. So many interesting angles.

And now, of course, we’ve come to the point at which all good readers may be asking the question—”isn’t this really just an excuse for you to buy more books about color? I note, for instance, a copy of Ridgway’s Color Standards and Color Nomenclature on ebay at the moment…”  Well yes, I don’t deny that is a legitimate point, the truth of which is only tempered by my inability to afford all those wonderful old books with their hand painted swatches or pasted-in color chips (didn’t I mention the historical challenges to actually reproducing color in books…).

From Brian Kennon’s Black and White Reproductions of The Abstract Expressionists

So to divert your attention, perhaps I’ll end with an artist’s book from 2nd Cannons Publications that rather delights me. Brian Kennon’s Black and White Reproductions of the Abstract Expressionists abstracts the colors in 13 abstract expressionist painting into simple color swatches printed alongside black and white reproductions of the art, with lines pointing to where each color belongs.  It isn’t just the idea of abstracting an abstraction that makes this book so interesting. It is what it reveals about the role of color—the falseness that occurs when the colors are rendered equal through uniform-sized color squares, through reduction to an over-simplified color palette.  In separating form from color, Kennon points our attention to how subtle the action of color actually is in art. And this isn’t even to begin to discuss the fact the Kennon has made color swatches that are not always accurate in tonal value to the original paintings, thus creating a work with its own independent aesthetic tone and feel.

[Many thanks the The Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library for the following images: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. [Zur Farbenlehre.] Erklärung Der Zu Goethe’s Farbenlehre Gehörigen Tafeln. Tübingen: Cotta, 1810 and M. E. Chevreul, Des Couleurs Et De Leurs Applications Aux Arts Industriels à l’Aide Des Cercles Chromatiques. Paris: J.B. Ballière, 1864.]