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Tartan Ferret
Test

The Principles of Colour


November 1932

Colour has always been a great source of joy to man. Far away in the dim background of influences and emotions that make up our composite nature this love of colour has its beginnings, so fundamental that it seems to extend back almost beyond the birth of mankind. It seems almost to be an essential ingredient of animal nature. It goes back perhaps even further, for who can penetrate these dim beginnings when by imperceptible degrees life emerged "from chaos"? Possibly this love of colour might be traced in animal and man alike to the development of protective necessity - possibly to that inutilitarian emotional side of our nature which delights in beauty and does not calculate the cost. But has not beauty truly its foundations in utility? Is not beauty the active principle as it were of all utility? The ultimate utility in fact?
A curious and interesting line of speculation leading yet to great practical beneficial vistas of perfection to be occupied by future generations. The separation of beauty from utility is but a phase in the evolution of our ideas.
One of the pleasures of editing these papers is the contacts they produce with those who read them. Our last paper produced quite a number of interesting comments and of requests for further information, particularly on the little-known subject of the old Highland vegetable dyes. We are tempted to promise a further paper on this subject some day. One of our dyers pointed out to us that our reference to C aledon Jade Green was not up to date. The name was later combined by the inventor with Solway, and the wool dye is called Soledon. He also points out that in these days science has overtaken Nature, and in light shades of blue alizarine dyes exist that are even faster than indigo. This question of standards of fastness is still in the tentative stage, and amongst the most important work on the subject is that of the U.S. Bureau of Standards, but there is still a long road to travel before true standards can be established.
C olour is a phenomenon of light. We can have no colour without light. White light contains all colours and may be broken up with a prism into its component parts as the shower forms the rainbow. It was a pleasant allegory of our designer to make colour the bridge for our lambkins to skip across the seas. We shall not here go into the question of wavelengths and the relationship between the visible rays of light, the heat rays, the wireless rays, excepting to say that they are all connected into one harmonious scale for which our hearing, seeing, feeling faculties act as receivers, some of one part, some of another part of the scale.
The light rays are divided into a perfectly graded rainbow consisting of Red Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet. In the early days of colour investigation these colours that could not be obtained by mixing were called Primary, and those midway, as it were, between two Primaries were called Secondaries. The Primaries are Red, Yellow, and Blue ; the secondaries, the colours produced by mixing equal parts of two Primaries - Orange between Red and Yellow, Green between Yellow and Blue, Violet between Blue and Bed. This classification belongs to the simple days when the full unity of wavelengths was either unknown or only dimly foreshadowed. For practical purposes it is sufficient to account for all the ordinary visible phenomena of light and colour, and, though partial and incomplete, is accurate and useful so far as it goes.
As in all technical subjects there is a great vocabulary of jargon, but we need not trouble over more than a very few words. We should remember Primary and Secondary colours, and there is one other important word - C omplementary. A colour is C omplementary to another colour when its addition completes the prismatic series. Thus the C omplement of Red is the combination of Yellow and Blue which makes Green ; of Yellow, Bed and Blue which makes Purple; of Blue, Yellow and Red which makes Orange . These were conveniently shown by the old investigators' "chromatic circle", by which device these pairs of C omplementary colours can be determined at a glance.
In the early days of colour investigation it was found that the greatest effect of brilliance was obtained where a colour was contrasted with its complement, but that when mixed the result was dull - even Grey could be made. More than this, the result of mixing such complementary coloured pigments - paints, dyes, any kind of colours - was to produce a shade darker than the component parts. In fact, with a little care a dyer can produce a quite tolerable black on cloth or a printer on paper by the use of the complementary colours in combination.
On the other hand, in dealing with lights the result of adding complementary colours is White. Red and Green colour produces Black; Red and Green light produces White. This at first seemed embarrassing behaviour, until it became evident that one was subtraction and the other addition; that the coloured article reflected only the rays of its apparent colour and absorbed the others.
The action of dyestuffs is strange and is little understood. A certain process has the power to cause wool to absorb the Yellow and Blue rays of the White light of day. The cloth so treated can only reflect the Red rays, and to us it seems to have been dyed Red. Sometimes the process is stable and we call the colour fast sometimes it changes and we call it fugitive . We do not know just what has happened, but the complex chemical structure we have laboriously built up in the wool has changed under the silent influence of the sun.
Now suppose we treat our Red cloth with a chemical with the power of absorbing Red only. That means that it reflects Blue and Yellow, so that our cloth if originally treated with this second chemical would be Green. But in this instance the cloth already absorbs the Bed, so there are no Red rays to reflect, and the result is the complete absence of reflection or Black. Without elaborating the argument further it is evident that the mixing of lights shows exactly the opposite effect because it is evidently a process of addition, and the adding of Red to Green will complete the composition of White light, just as the subtraction of Green and Red by absorbing all the rays produced Black.
If we have made our argument clear it will be evident a coloured article can only reflect such rays as fall upon it, and that its apparent colour will be greatly influenced by the composition of the light. Thus to take an extreme case in the photographic darkroom - Red paper is not distinguishable from White, nor Green from Black. This is the reason why evening dresses should always be chosen by artificial light, because practically all artificial lights show a great excess of Red and Yellow rays, so that all colours look "warmer" by artificial light than by daylight because of the absence of the Blue rays in the light itself. Blues look dark and grey; Reds look more intense; Yellows paler and more brilliant. Our eyes are totally incapable of analysis of light - neither practice nor experience can enable us to analyse colours - and we have the strange phenomenon of colours that match by daylight and look quite different by artificial light.
The old colour chemists analysed a vast series of phenomena of colour contrasts and invented a beautiful abracadabra of magic words to describe them. These we shall pass by and shall sum them up in one law of contrasts - all and every kind of contrast - that things unlike each other look most unlike when placed side by side. A tall man and a short man, a colour and its complement. This has nothing to do with fashion. It may not be the fashion of the moment, but the utmost brilliance of Red is obtained by contrasting it with Green, or it may be dulled through an endless range of Russet and Brown to Black by mixing it with Green.
Here come in some interesting features shown by Scottish Woollens, and particularly the explanation of the wonderful early prominence of Scottish C heviots when first the Woollen manufacturer began to discover mixtures, especially of the great group so typically Scottish - the LOVATS. In a future paper we shall deal with this interesting and important question, and shall sketch the origins and developments of some of the famous mixtures of the world. To produce a sparkling and lively mixture the original colours must, of course, be brilliant, but it is still more important that they must not be divided too minutely for the eye to see them separately - otherwise the result is simply dull, for one colour cancels out the other.
For practical purposes of clothing the fibres must be fine enough to spin to a yarn small enough to produce a cloth of the necessary weight or thickness ; not so fine that the eye cannot distinguish the individual fibres near at hand; not so coarse as to be harsh to touch; of a good natural colour so as to be able to display the dyes well; of a lustre sufficient to reflect the light satisfactorily. Many wools have one or another of these points ; none combine them all to such a degree as the fine C heviot and crossbred wools that are used for Scotch C heviot suitings and coatings, and that is why we claim that they are paramount fundamentally, and in spite of the whims of Fashion which now and then put them out of court, they are supreme and can only be temporarily displaced.
One of the most interesting fields for the study of colour mixing is colour printing. Any person interested in the subject can find endless enjoyment in the examination of colour prints of all sorts, puzzling out the complex over printings of lithography and wood block work. Then there is the mathematical accuracy of the Three C olour Process with its light filters and complementary coloured inks, its halftone screens which break the selected colours into rows of tiny spots. The process is also an interesting example of the value of international work in modem industry: Germany contributed the original scientific groundwork; Great Britain the early commercial development of the work; France the standardisation and production of the light filters; and the United States the mechanical perfection of the screens needed for successful and accurate printing.
Another interesting and curious effect is that colours tend to tint their surroundings with their complement. This is but a development of the effect of contrast which makes a tall man look a giant amongst small men. The lovely twilight blues that fill the windows of a lighted room have no relationship to the actual outdoor colour, which is just neutral - a general absence of any special colour and quite unaffected whether the weather outside be wet or fine, blue sky or grey. The famous, and justly famous, colour schemes of the Grand C anyon of the C olorado again show the same effect, russet and red rocks, cobalt blue shadows - again complements- imposed on the eye by the overpowering orange reflection of the blistering sun. We remember also a lovely scene of grey rocks in the Alps that developed into sheets of many-coloured flowers which joined together to make a shimmering grey of the valley. An evening cycle run many years ago comes vividly back as a beautiful illustration. It was the valley of the Ettrick, beloved by Sir Walter Scott, the centenary of whose death this year has been the theme of countless memorial orations, not only in Scotland but throughout the world. Our road was already in shadow. The orange light of the setting sun touched the smooth sides of the opposite hills. The famous and lovely Ettrick meandered out and in from the cool shade of our side to the glowing landscape beyond, and everywhere as the stream flowed out into the vivid sunlight it changed to an intense blue of piercing loveliness. In the offices of the mills where these papers are edited a perpetual and cheerful effect of sunlight was procured by contrasting honey-coloured walls, light-toned woodwork, and mahogany furnishings in the inner office with a blue entrance lobby - blue stairs, blue rubber carpet, blue walls. The sun shines on the dullest day. A thousand such examples may be gathered from the works of Nature and of our artists, who use the rule with the subtlety of the great masters, or the blatancy of the successful designers of posters.
Even so very slight a sketch as this must not be finished without just a reference to the great group of iridescent effects. They have not so far been applied to the designing of Scottish Woollens, though there is no saying when the national energy and ingenuity may not sweep the world with the application of a new idea. This group is chiefly limited to Primary and Secondary colours - rainbow colours in fact. Peacocks' feathers, lustre pottery and glass, the brilliant changing colours of some butterflies' wings, the shimmer of the dragonfly, the curious shifting colours of fire opals, the gay shades of the oil spilt on the wet asphalt of our city streets. These are caused by the breaking up of the light beams, either by the form of the reflecting surface or by the internal crystalline structure of the material through which the light is transmitted. These colours are even more illusive than our wool dyes. All colours are illusive. We know how they behave and we have great power over their manipulation although we know little of their actual workings, but in these colours of iridescence we have nothing tangible at all - a lovely glittering bubble - "such stuff as dreams are made on."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

E.S. Harrison

 

 

One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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