A Question of Balance

(10 points for anyone who can make the musical reference without cheating!)

I was reminded the other day of an old trick that we used in art school painting classes in regards to looking at a composition’s balance, and it bears revisiting. I had sent a design over to a colleague just to look at. She made a few good suggestions including observations about the piece’s balance, and that we can’t always see errors in a work until we step away for it for a while and look at it anew. And this brings us to our discussions of balance.

She was correct of course. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned it to give a piece a break and come back to it later for review. Just as one can’t proofread one’s own work (just trust me on this – and that’s why I’ve work as and with proofreaders for years!), one gets “blind” to errors in a design. And overall balance is the first thing one should look at, as it’s the “frame” on which all of the elements hang.

My art school method of looking anew at a composition was simply turning the painting upside down and seeing if the elements still felt in balance. Now that I was seeing the objects simply as shapes without meaning, it was easy to tell where things were bunched up together and where there were blobby holes. Now, it’s a little more difficult to turn a computer screen upside down but rotating the canvas in the program or simply taking a screen shot and rotating it accomplishes the same thing.

Now, does this idea of balance mean that items have equal spacing all around them? Not in the least! As I noted to my colleague, I rarely put anything in “symmetrical balance.” I find aligning things all up in nice rows equidistant to each other static and boring. I much prefer (and an better known for) using “asymmetrical balance” and even pushing it as far as I can.

In asymmetrical balance, items aren’t the same size nor are they the same distance from each other. Instead, they visually play off against each other. A large shape is counterbalanced by 3-5 smaller items (as odd numbers of objects are also more interesting). Items are not placed in exact middles of anything, but 1/3 – 1/5 or so over.

detail of the top element of the Battersea shield

I think that the perfect example of asymmetrical balance is the one the first spoke to me long ago – this detail from the Battersea Shield (from 350BCE and currently in the British Museum)

Now, that center piece is relatively symmetrical in design, although it’s not classically symmetrical with rather different motifs at the top and bottom versus the left and right. No, it’s the upper and lower details that just sing with energy and movement. Those 4 enamel circles are equidistant from the center one, but just look at the curves that link them all together! They’re inside out and back to front and all in perfect unison with the next. Even the little round balls visually fit in their spaces. The Celtic mind didn’t see life as a linear progression on and on. It pulsed and tugged and was always in motion.

The complete face Battersea Shield .

So remember – a design in motion is an interesting design. A design in balance with itself is beautiful. And design that contains all of the same elements all spaced the same is for chartered accountants and their business cards.

(and for those of you who have read this far and are still wondering about the musical reference, you’ll find your answer here. Not my favorite, but nice to give a nod in that direction.)

The less well-known Wandsworth shield. It also appears to be symmetrical, and it somewhat is. But look closely an you’ll see that the curves undulate and are all a bit different.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Painting Used To Be a Real Grind

It’s a good time to be an artist or designer. One can begin creating simply by opening up Photoshop or Illustrator and begin pushing pixels or vector paths. Need some paint or a few pencils? Just pop out to your local store and peruse their stock.

This beautiful but deadly yellow is made from tin and lead.

It wasn’t always so easy.

Before paint was mass-produced, artists had to mix their own. To keep things very simple, paint is pigment suspended in binder and filler. The pigment was usually finely ground material – minerals, plants, and often more exotic items. Browns, ochres, whites were all relatively easy colors to produce as clay and chalks were abundant. It was the more exotic colors – the blues, golds, greens – that were so difficult to produce because the ingredients were more rare. And because they were rare, they were reserved for special figures. (see my musing on the color blue )

WHERE these pigments came from is the subject of a recent book Atelier Éditions An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Colour. It examines the vials of pigment that the Harvard Art Museum collected starting in the early 20th century, to use in restoring or maintaining their own Italian art collection. Many of the materials used are no longer available, and in many cases, probably shouldn’t be. Take a look at these raw pigments , read Smithsonian Magazine’s great article on the collection and pigment history,  and then let’s discuss.

That large tube of green powder is labeled rokusho. In Japan, one form was used to patina patterns in knives. Another was ground up malachite (that beautiful green stone shown in the photo gallery). Take a look at that process at here.

That large yellow ball? “Watercolor Indian yellow” and manufactured from “the urine of cows or buffaloes that were bred on mango leaf diets.” Fortunately for the artist, the only negative factors in grinding up and using this pigment was the “ick factor.” Other pigments were deadly as they contained lead and arsenic. That gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “dying for one’s art.”

Consider also that every artist had their own recipe for manufacturing their paints. Certainly there were a lot of “standard issue” base paints. But it was the artist who explored with pigments and techniques that began to set his work apart from other artists.

Every time I read about early art techniques, I think back to Robertson Davies’ book “What’s Bred in the Bone.” Medieval art forgery is one of the book’s themes, and the steps that the forgers took (scraping paint off of unremarkable old paintings to reconstitute as new ‘old’ pigment for paint fascinate me. But again, it is also a great insight about what creating art was like prior to the availability of commercially produced materials.




Posted in Color, History

MY Teams Rumble: RGB vs CMYK

Any proper exploration of color has to start with “He Who is the Patron Saint of All Things Color” – Roy G. Biv. Better known in physics circles as the mnemonic device to remember the order of colors in the light spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Some would argue that the inclusion of indigo is specious, and there only because (this being an American name) we needed to have a vowel there rather than a string of consonants.

Every elementary student learns (or at least used to learn) that the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. You mix red + blue = purple (violet), red + yellow = orange, and blue + yellow = green. Mix them all together and you get black.

And that’s where things go horribly wrong.

And without Newton’s work, we might not have this iconic album cover

Modern color theory begins back with Sir Isaac Newton’s work with light and prisms. Light when cast through a prism is broken down into our familiar Roy G. Biv pattern, and Newton was the first to experiment with light and color. It was his color wheel that named blue, yellow, and red as primarily colors from which all other colors come from. When you stick needles in your eye to observe color, folks will cut you a bit of slack, I suppose.

However, there are a couple of flaws in his (and subsequent scientists’) theories of primary colors. And the primary problem was that Newton was considering all colors as having equal amounts of space in between them. He was also making color separation analogous to a musical octave of 7 notes with the 8th being the same note as the first. However, there IS no equal spacing in color or sound.

And so, red, blue, and yellow were mistakenly cast as primary colors.

And here the path divides.

Newton and other scientists were working with the color spectrum of light whilst they and other folks involved with color (like artists) tried translating it into pigment. The systems are completely different and while there’s some overlap, they are certainly not the same.

Within the light system of color, the primary colors are red, GREEN, and blue. Light is an “additive” system of color where the absence of color is black and the presence of all color is white. (which brings us right back to Newton and the prism). Green + red=yellow, green + blue = cyan, and blue + red=magenta. (remember those secondary colors, as they’ll be important later). Those three colors create millions of other colors. BUT…only in light. Or light-emitting devices like television, digital movies, and computers. This color system is referred to by its color initials: RGB.

Back over on the pigment side of the color wheel things are rather different. The actual primary colors in regards to pigment are cyan, magenta, and yellow and it is a “subtractive” system. What the heck does that mean?

When we look at an object we perceive its color as the colors of the light spectrum that are not absorbed by the object, but reflected back to us. So, a blue object absorbs (subtracts) all light except that blue and reflects the blue back to our eyes. Hence, it’s “blue.” Cyan + yellow = green, yellow + magenta = red/orange, and magenta + cyan = blue/violet. It’s almost like the familiar color wheel we learned back in grade school. However, mix all the colors together and you sort of get black. But not the perfect pitch black one thinks of as black. To get that color, you have to use … black pigment. This color system is referred to as CMYK from the initials of the first three colors, and then K for blacK. (another B would be quite confusing). This is the color system used by printers and painters – anything involving pigment is a CMYK space. Something else to note: the colors that are in between the CMYK colors just happen to be those in the RGB color space.

RGB and CMYK primaries. the OOs and FFs are part of each color’s hexidecimal code – the color language of the internet. We’ll look at that some other time.

However, the number of colors available within the CMYK system is far less than that within the RGB system (primarily within the purple/violet/magenta range. This is why colors on screen look so much more vivid. They are not only coming from a light-emitting source, there are more colors available in the RGB system. Colors that can only be reproduced in one way within the CMYK universe. But that’s another post. But this is also why Newton’s contemporaries had a difficult time demonstrating and working with color relationships in regards to mixing colors.


The analogy that I always give people about these two color systems is referring back to one of my favorite childhood items: crayons. Working in the CMYK color space, one is figuratively coloring with the set of 96 crayons. However, RGB is coloring with the set of 152 colors, so its creations can have a much wider “gamut” of colors.

This Peacock Mantis Shrimp commands you to go listen to the podcast.

Next: we take a look at conversion experiences, and talk about where those bright print colors come from, and what a good designer knows about color. And once again, I’ve written a post along the lines of a paper, but this is the foundation of all color work and there’s some interesting history there. Want to listen to one of the best explanations of color gamuts and how various animals (and insects) see colors. Listen to this podcast over on RadioLab. It’s one of my all time favorites (and lots of other folks!) was recently updated.


In closing: surely I can’t be the only graphic designer out there who, upon hearing about the movie on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, thought “RGB? They’re making a movie about color? COOL!”

Posted in Color

I’m Baaaack!

For the past few years after I have returned from the Cat Writers’ Association conference, I have returned vowing to be better and more consistant with my blogging (or as I prefer to say, “musing”). And…we’ve seen just how well that has turned out.

I’m “old school” when it comes to writing, and prefer to write only when I actually have something to say. And for me, that usually means doing additional research, acquiring/creating images. It’s as though I’m creating a school paper here! And perhaps…that’s not what I really need to be doing for this. So, I’m going to try a swifter, less intense approach and see where that leads me.

One thing that I have been thinking a lot about lately is color – history, usage, associations and the like. So for my “Kickoff Revival” (not to be confused with Sunday afternoon football in the South…) I’m going to explore color both individually, collectively, and practically. I think that it will be fun, provide a bit of a respite, and shake the old brain up a bit. I invite you all on this journey with me.

Posted in Uncategorized

Why We’re Blue

We’re getting bluer. Or at least our art is.

A recent article in the Daily Mail noted a study wherein artwork from the past 2 centuries was composited into a graph. At around 1920, there appears a definite uptick in the use of blue.

So what happened?

There’s speculation that are color preferences have changed, that subject matter has changed (which it certainly has). But I believe that it’s all due to the development of synthetic blue pigment in the 1700’s onward that was the real reason to our world becoming more blue.


Lapis lazuli was the ancient source for ultramarine blue pigment

First, a brief overview of how paint is made. Essentially, it is a colorant contained in a medium. This colorant is usually ground up something: earth, glass, minerals and such. Sometimes it’s an organic material that’s been dried and ground up. A great illustration of pigments throughout the centuries (and some of their side effects)is available here. The medium either dries (water-based) or hardens (oil-based) and the colorant left in place.

Natural ultramarine pigment

Natural ultramarine pigment

Now, let’s look back even further…back to ancient Egypt. Prior to this, blue pigment had to be made from ground up azurite or lapis lazuli. The Egyptians made the first synthetic blue pigment from a copper compound, calcium carbonate, silica, and alkali ash. This mixture was carefully fired and often, ground and fired again. It’s thought that the calcium wasn’t deliberately added, but was actually an impurity in the sand. Egyptian blue was a prized pigment and used to decorate tombs, molded into faiance beads and small artworks. But with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the

synthetic ultramarine pigment

synthetic ultramarine pigment

darkness of the Middle Ages, the technique to creating Egyptian blue was lost. The attempts to recreate it were missing that one important element – the calcium impurities in the Egyptian sand.

Artists were limited then to grinding up azurite, lapis lazuli for some very costly pigment, or use the less expensive (and less intense) smalt (cobalt glass) and indigo. Lapis lazuli was the basis for the revered blue known as ultramarine. It was so expensive that it was reserved for only the most precious works. The Virgin Mary gained her blue robes about this time as a testament to just how precious this color was.

Time and science marched on. In the early-1700’s Prussian blue (a deep blue pigment) became the first synthetic blue pigment. But it wasn’t ultramarine.

In 1814, Tassaert observed the spontaneous formation of a blue compound, very similar to ultramarine, if not identical with it, in a lime kiln at St. Gobain, which caused the Societé pour l’Encouragement d’Industrieto offer, in 1824, a prize for the artificial production of the precious color. Two men created it independently of each other in 1826 and 1828, and the world finally had an affordable ultramarine blue.

Henri Matisse – “The Dance”

Which brings us up to date with our graph. And then, a second bluing agent comes on the stage the Art Nouveau and Impressionist movements. A turning away from traditional landscape, portraiture, and holy subjects (the big three of traditional art), these new artists chose new subject matter and new styles – and made a lot of use of blue! Think Van Gogh’s “Starry Night, “ the myriad of Monet’s landscapes and water lilies, and Matisse’s use of large areas of shape and color. Even Picasso had his “blue period.” These imaginative canvases not only broke subject matter barriers, they used color in an entirely different way! And this non-traditional usage continues to this day!

Reading through the information about creating pigment the traditional way, and the paint’s interaction with light vs. synthetic pigment made me begin to think about the effects of the material itself on the piece of art. But that’s another topic



Posted in History