Are you hungry for some meaty text on art?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dazzle Coloration

I have never been interested in wearing camouflage. I can’t get beyond the idea of its martial implications. That said, I remember reading somewhere that Harris tweeds from Scotland were often woven with the idea of camouflaging the wearer out stalking game. I have a particularly vivid Harris tweed coat I picked up years ago in a second hand store—bright yellow and orange with dashes of red and gray. I realized during a spring visit to Ireland where the hills were ablaze with blooming gorse how well the coat would blend in to such a setting.

The subject of a small but fascinating show at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia naturalist painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), devoted a great deal of energy to camouflage, a subject he came to by studying animal's use of protective coloration to hide from predators. Along with his son, Gerald, Thayer produced a major book entitled Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures in 1909.

The show begins with some paintings of ducks on the water that are really beautiful. You can see how Thayer was playing around with the ducks, semi-disguising them. They have an almost fractured quality as if they’ve been broken up in to color sections to echo the leaves, reflections and lily pads around them. These are rich, immensely satisfying works in terms of color, light and application of paint. There’s also a stunning painting of a path through a stand of trees: a study of light and shadow described with dramatic brushstrokes. Thayer began his love affair with nature painting, and particularly birds, from a young age. There were several watercolors on view done when he was a child—a particularly lovely one of different colored eggs.

Early on, Thayer established a link between an animal’s ability to blend into its surroundings and military camouflage. Beginning in 1910 he actively promoted his ideas, producing precise, beautifully rendered dioramas and numerous watercolors pertaining to concealment techniques appropriate to naval situations. In the latter case, it was not so much concealment as sleight of hand, since on the high seas it’s impossible to hide a ship. The alternative was to visually confuse the enemy, using what Thayer referred to as “dazzle coloration,” thus obscuring the actual size and shape of the vessel. Because torpedos were slow to hit their target and were aimed to where the ship was headed rather than where it was, this “shape shifting” was an effective strategy.

It’s hard to believe it worked, looking at the ships covered in ostentatious blotches of blue, white and black, but I’ll take his word for it and, in fact, the patterns used on World War II warships have much in common with Thayer’s designs.

But at the onset of World War I, Thayer’s attempts (he even had John Singer Sargent present his camouflage ideas to the British War Office) to get through to the powers that be were largely thwarted. Thayer’s book was reissued in 1918 and still quite possibly had an influence on the development of World War I camouflage. Even so, in addition to his work as a wildlife painter of particular insight and sensitivity, Thayer is nowadays considered the father of camouflage.

No comments:

Post a Comment