My Father and his Garden

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

For Father’s Day, I decided to post a photo of my own father alongside his “pride and joy”, which was the large garden that he cultivated at the house in Scarborough where we grew up. He lavished many of his leisure hours on that garden, growing all kinds of plants, including the rose bushes shown. The photo was taken c.1960, before he suffered his first stroke. After that, he was no longer able to do the physical work required to maintain the garden, which then gradually deteriorated (although my mother did pitch in to maintain it until we moved away in 1970).

There’s no doubt that the results he achieved while still healthy were spectacular, as shown in the photo below of the two of us sitting by the frog pond in the back garden.

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

Naturally, having nothing else against which to compare it, I took it for granted that everyone had a huge garden like ours, with a pond and a stream running through it, and that working on the garden was a necessary part of every adult’s life.

It was only as I grew up that I came to realize that, not only did some people not have large gardens, but that some city-dwelling types actually didn’t have their own gardens at all!

Decades later, when I moved to California, I made the further discovery that all that gardening effort is something of a British peculiarity. Some Americans do take pride in maintaining beautiful gardens, and some take an interest in cultivating roses or other specific types of plant. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone here say that their hobby is “gardening”, which would be quite common in Britain.

Large Garden: Small House

It was also common for British suburban houses to be built with large surrounding gardens, even when the homes themselves were quite small.

Now, both the homes and the gardens are becoming small; the smallest in Europe, according to this article. Nonetheless, there are still many older houses that still have the large gardens with which they were built.

According to current aerial views, the garden of our Scarborough house has now been largely built over, so there’s nothing left to see of all my father’s hard work.

On Second Thoughts

Having grown up enjoying that immense garden, I was convinced that I, too, wanted to create and maintain something similar. It was only when we moved into a house with a garden that I realized just how much time and expense was involved! It seemed even less appealing because we were renting that house, so all that effort was going into someone else’s garden.

As a result, I dialed back my gardening ambitions very substantially! Now, I’m quite happy to have a small, well-designed, garden, and pay someone else to maintain it, even though I own the property. The photo below, showing our home’s front garden a few months ago, shows the modest level of my requirements!

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

Recapturing his Childhood

In my father’s case, I believe that he had some specific, tragic reasons for wanting to create a large and luxuriant garden. He had been born into a relatively wealthy (upper middle class) family. His father owned a textile mill in Leeds, and they lived in a large house in the suburb of Roundhay, with a complement of servants.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the mill went bankrupt, probably in the late 1920s, and because the business was unincorporated, they lost everything. My father’s garden was probably thus a way of recapturing a lost aspect of his happy younger days.

A Liberator visits Santa Rosa

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

My photo above shows the last flying Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber, which I’d hoped to be flying in earlier this week. Unfortunately, the flight had to be canceled, due to an engine problem, but nonetheless I had a rare opportunity to examine the aircraft in detail. Alongside several other vintage aircraft, the B-24 was visiting Sonoma County Airport, as part of the annual Wings of Freedom Tour, organized by the Collings Foundation.

My interest in this particular type of aircraft stems from the fact that my father flew in them, as a Wireless Operator (W/O) for the RAF, during World War II. I mentioned in a previous article that he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of the war, because somebody had given him a “hot tip” that, by not waiting to be conscripted, he’d be able to choose which service he joined, and where he would serve. Unfortunately, that advice turned out to be only half-right, because he definitely did not want to serve in Aden, which was where he actually spent most of the war.

The Worst Place in the World

As reported in the book Wings of Empire, RAF personnel who served in Aden during the 1920s and 1930s described it as the “most repulsive place in the world”. It was from RAF Khormaksar air base that my father flew offensive missions against Italian forces, and also operated many ferry flights of aircraft being transferred from Britain to the Far East. Most of the ferry missions involved his flying between Aden and Malta.

As the war progressed, Britain took delivery of increasing numbers of American aircraft, under the Lend-Lease program. Thus, having started out flying British types such as the Blenheim and Vincent, he later found himself operating such American types as the Liberator and Hudson. (Incidentally, all the type names of the American aircraft were conferred by the RAF; in the US all the types were officially known only by numbers.)

Inside the B-24

My photo below shows the W/O’s position, behind the flight deck, as seen from the front of the bomb bay. This is where my father would have been sitting on those long flights.

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

The photo below, from a slightly different angle, shows the view through to the flight deck from the W/O station.

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Warbirds Together

The B-24 wasn’t the only vintage aircraft visiting Santa Rosa. As shown below, a North American TF-51 trainer (2-seat version of the P-51 Mustang fighter) was just taxying in while I was inside the B-24.

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

Lined up alongside the B-24 was a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, shown below in front of Sonoma Jet Center, who were hosting the visit.

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

Perhaps the most well-known of the visiting types was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, shown below.

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

Gun Crazy

The US has become notorious for having too many guns, too freely available, but fortunately the realistic-looking machine gun shown below is just a dummy! It’s the waist gunner’s position inside the B-24.

Guns at the Airport!

Guns at the Airport!

As I was leaving, work continued to repair the B-24’s engine, as shown below. The aircraft were scheduled to leave the following day, so they had to get the airplane flying again.

Working on the B-24's Engine

Working on the B-24’s Engine

He Never Went Back

As a postscript to the description of my father’s wartime experience, I should mention that he never went back to Aden again (nor anywhere near it) after his military service, and I don’t think he was sorry about that!

I’ve described in earlier posts how the lives of both my parents were blighted by war, and how fortunate I feel that mine has not (so far). I think it’s important to remind ourselves every so often of the ordeals that our ancestors endured in order to maintain our freedoms.

The Egrets of Ninth Street

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

I just completed the drawing above, as an impressionistic depiction of Egrets in flight.

In the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing brilliant white egrets flying gracefully overhead, or else wading in pools and on moist ground. Before emigrating from England, I’d never seen any species of egret in the wild. Now, egrets are increasingly common in Britain, but when I was young, they were such rare visitors as to be included only in the “Rarest on Record” appendix of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (which was our family’s major reference on the topic).

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa in 2005, we discovered a remarkable natural event that occurs annually in a built-up part of the city. Every year at around this time, significant numbers of wading birds start building nests in a few pine and eucalyptus trees in the center median of West Ninth Street, Santa Rosa. There are several species nesting in close proximity in this heronry: Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, plus Black-crowned Night Herons. Although they don’t nest there, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons can also be seen in the vicinity. None of these species are rare in California, but it’s their proximity to human habitation in such large numbers that is unusual in this case.

My short video below shows both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the treetops at West Ninth Street, then gives a brief general impression of the scene. The trees are surrounded by houses and apartments, and cars cruise by on either side of the street.

 

Volunteers from the Madrone Audubon Society have assumed responsibility for looking after the heronry. Every year they fence off a portion of the road and put down straw beneath the trees, to protect any baby birds that may fall from the nests.

As you can hear in the video, the birds are quite noisy, and can also create quite a smell on hot days, so I imagine that the local residents are less than enthusiastic about their presence!

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and fascinating sight for visitors. The photo below is a closeup of a nesting Great Egret, which I took during our visit in 2007.

Great Egret in the Treetops

Great Egret in the Treetops

Egrets in the Park

As I mentioned above, I often see flocks of egrets flying in formation over our house, but they usually don’t land anywhere that’s visible to us. Occasionally, however, a flock decides to feed in the park in front of our house, as shown below in a through-the-window photo, taken one foggy morning in 2016.

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Herons At Large

In a previous blog post, I featured a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron that appeared unexpectedly by the swimming pool of the Z Hotel in Oakland while we were staying there.

My photo below shows a Great Blue Heron wading in the Napa River a few years ago, alongside a gull.

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Technical Note

Incidentally, I’m already aware that the egrets in my drawing display features from several different species. I chose features for their artistic impact, rather than for technical accuracy.

The Miracle of Literacy

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

The image above is an excerpt from one of my earliest attempts at writing (and illustrating). It’s a page from a book called “Stories of Mr. Wolf” that I wrote at home, at the age of six. I still have the book, which I’ve recently scanned because the paper is gradually disintegrating. I can’t claim that those stories would win any literary prizes, nor even hold the interest of anyone else, but I had to start somewhere!

I was always eager to learn to read and write, and was quite happy to practice at home when I felt so inspired. Perhaps unlike many children, I didn’t have to wait for my schoolteachers to insist that I must do it.

The Magical Skill

I can just remember back to the days before I learned to read and write, and I recall my amazement at the adults around me who seemed able to do it with ease. My grandfather, who was retired and lived with my parents, took a daily newspaper and several magazines (including the Dalesman, which is still in print today).

As it appeared to me, he would open the newspaper or magazine, stare at it for a few minutes, then tell me that he had read it! He didn’t seem to need to sound out the words, or follow the text with his finger, and yet, at the end of the process, he had clearly absorbed and understood the printed words that he’d been staring at. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever learn to do that!

Four Generations of our Family

Four Generations of our Family

The photo above was taken when I was about 2 years old, and shows 4 generations of my mother’s family. The group on the right consists of me, my mother, her mother, and my grandmother’s mother. The man at lower left is my grandfather.

My drawing below is from another book that I wrote and illustrated in 1966, but this was one that we were required to write in class at school, and it features one of my earliest “self-portraits”. Unlike most of my other school work, this book has also survived.

Self-Portrait, 1966

Self-Portrait, 1966

Based on the remaining evidence, a notable difference between the books I wrote at home and those I wrote at school is that the subjects I wrote about at home were generally more imaginative and adventurous! It seems that, at school, our teachers must have restricted us to writing about very mundane topics (perhaps because we all had to write about the same things).

The Basis of Civilization

It seems to me that literacy is the one critical skill that allows human society to advance, and in fact is the sole reason why we’re not all still living in trees or caves.

Anthropologists tell us how other species rely more instinct than humans, so newborns of those species already have many critical survival skills. Humans, as they tell us, have to go through a very protracted growth process, and must be taught almost everything by their parents.

The specifically-human ability to read and write, however, allows individuals to record and transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and that ability has been critical to our progress as a species. If each generation of humans had to restart “from square one”, learning everything from scratch, we would never advance. Instead, each generation is able to learn from the one before, and “stand on the shoulders” of its ancestors to make further progress. Most of this knowledge transmission has always occurred, and still occurs, via reading and writing.

It’s true that recent technological developments have provided us with other mechanisms for recording and transmitting information (such as video). While such systems offer a much richer and perhaps more engaging experience, our basic writing systems still offer vastly greater efficiency for disseminating information than any other recording system. I came to a forceful realization of this when writing my first multimedia title, Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets (mentioned in this article on my professional blog). I was faced with the choice of delivering information via onscreen text, or via audio, or even via video. In very rough terms, audio playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of text display, and video playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of audio playback.

A New Literary Revolution

At the present time, another literary revolution is actually occurring. All genuinely creative writers and artists should be excited about this revolution, but I wonder how many actually realize what is happening!

The invention of printing allowed written information to be disseminated to mass audiences. Previously, all written works had had to be hand-copied, which was such a laborious process that only a few copies of each book were ever produced.

Nonetheless, printed books still had to be produced and distributed physically, and this led to a situation where publishers became the dominant “gatekeepers”, controlling what could actually reach the mass market.

The image below shows the title page of the oldest printed book in my possession, which obviously I acquired secondhand! The book was published by the University of Cambridge in 1828, and is a collection of the surviving works of the Greek playwright Æschylus.

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1830

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1828

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught myself some Ancient Greek while studying in Manchester, but my fluency never became sufficient to read Æschylus’ work in the original! Nonetheless, my efforts led me to the purchase of this and a few other works in Greek.

Books Without Paper

During the past few years, eBooks have started to become popular. Instead of being printed on paper, eBooks are distributed electronically and are read on digital devices. In fact, in many cases purchasers cannot print their eBooks on paper.

Although eBooks have several pros and cons relative to printed books, a remarkable situation has developed whereby major booksellers such as Amazon are actively encouraging authors to self-publish their own eBooks, instead of being forced to follow the traditional routes via established publishers.

In view of this development, I think we’re living at a very exciting time, when the potential for writers (and artists) is greater than it has ever been. There’s really now nothing to prevent those with real talent from being able to publish their works to the world.

And yes, just as with the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the 1980s, the democratization of book publishing will inevitably mean that vast amounts of dross will get published along with the masterpieces! Nonetheless, I think that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, and the world will soon see a whole new publishing landscape. For a skill that has been so critical to the development of our species, that has to be a good thing!

Royal Weddings & Royal Wars

 

The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

I took the photo above, looking down onto the Dordogne River in France, from the ruined battlements of the Château de Beynac.

I was reminded of this view now because of its perhaps-surprising place in English history. As I’ll explain below, my thoughts were prompted by the recent media coverage of the forthcoming British Royal Wedding, which will take place on the 19th May. Given that I was born in Britain, perhaps some would imagine that I’d be enthusiastic about such an event. After all, as Canadian actor Mike Myers said of his own Liverpool-born father a few years ago (and as reported in the Liverpool Echo):

There’s no-one more English than an Englishman not living in England

Well, I’m sorry to have to admit that I don’t fit that stereotype, at least if it applies to a fondness for royalty and certain other British institutions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever taken any great interest in the activities of the Royal Family. When I was starting my engineering apprenticeship at Ferranti, back in 1981, the nation’s attention was focused on another “fairy tale” royal wedding; that of Charles and Diana. There’s probably nobody in the world who doesn’t know how badly that “fairy tale” ended, for all involved. Sadly, from what we know now, the whole business seems to have been a fraudulent façade from the start.

When I came to live in the US about 30 years ago, I was rather surprised by the level of interest shown by the American media in British royalty. Didn’t they fight a war to free themselves from those overlords? Of course, I now realize that most of the interest really stems from the unhealthy practice of celebrity worship, and not from any actual desire to be ruled by the House of Windsor!

In the latest case, things already seem to be going ”off the rails”, according to reports like this one (from the San Jose Mercury), indicating that the bride’s father is causing embarrassment and confusion.

English Royalty or French Royalty?

I’m not sure how many people outside Britain realize that what’s now the Royal Family traces its roots to William I, a prince from Normandy (France), who in 1066 famously invaded England, killed the English king, and claimed the country as his own.

William then embarked on a ruthless campaign to suppress resistance throughout the country, removing many of the former English lords and replacing them with his own supporters. The Harrying of the North was so cruel that many areas were left uninhabitable for decades afterwards.

Given that William also reigned over lands in what’s now France, his conquest of England led to centuries of strife over the rulership of the territories. This culminated in the Hundred Years War, by the end of which the King of England lost most of his French principalities.

At one point during the Hundred Years War, the border between English and French territory was the Dordogne River. In the photo above, the land from which I took the photo was at that time French, while the land that’s visible on the other side of the river was English.

The photo below shows the Château de Beynac from below. The road from which I took the photo runs along the North bank of the river.

Beynac from the River Bank

Beynac from the River Bank

The photo below shows an evening view of the central plaza in the commune of Domme, a few miles from Beynac. Domme is a bastide like Beynac, but, being on the opposite bank of the Dordogne, was in English hands during the Hundred Years War.

The Mairie of Domme

The Mairie of Domme

Off with their Heads!

One notable (if unsurprising) fact about those medieval wars is that nobody ever asked the populations of the disputed territories who they would prefer to be ruled by. The pretenders to the thrones, and their personal armies, simply fought among themselves, and it was taken for granted that the populace would accept the outcome.

Ideas of government have certainly come a long way since then, and (despite some major shortcomings) one of the world’s most successful experiments in democratic government must surely be the USA.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the US case, many attempts to overthrow monarchies and replace them with democratic governments have not been successful. Amid all the current Royal Wedding fuss, it’s easy to forget that such a revolution once happened in England, as the outcome of the English Civil War. In 1649, the English monarchy was bloodily terminated when King Charles I was publicly beheaded. Unfortunately, the dictatorship that replaced him (led by Oliver Cromwell) was so unpleasant that the monarchy was eventually restored by popular demand!

Thus, while I’m no fan of monarchies anywhere, I’m well aware that the alternatives may sometimes be much worse!

From Cloughton Station Gates to the World

HW_XingGate770319Cright

Pencil Drawing of Cloughton Station Gates, 1977

I produced the pencil drawing above in March 1977, as one of the regular weekly homework exercises for my Advanced-Level Art qualification.

The (now rather smudged) picture depicts a disused level crossing (grade crossing) gate that protected the tracks near the station at Cloughton. Cloughton was an intermediate stop on the Scarborough-Whitby line, which closed completely in 1965. The closure of that line set off a strange chain of events, which eventually led to worldwide fame for a similar station on a neighboring line.

My 1977 photo below shows a roadside view of the station building and goods shed at Cloughton, in a semi-derelict state.

CloughtonStnCright

Cloughton Station, 1977

These days, although Cloughton Station building still exists at that location, the crossing gate is long gone (as shown in this Google Streetview). On the other hand, thankfully the surviving station premises have been substantially renovated, and are now tea rooms, presenting a much cheerier scene than they did when I took my photographs during the 1970s.

Not Quite What Was There

As I recall, the goal of that homework assignment was to draw an outdoor scene, but I felt that that was a bit too much trouble, so, instead, I based my drawing on my own photograph of that scene! (Unfortunately, I no longer have that photograph.)

However, as you might expect from my approach to such artwork, if you’ve read my earlier posts on the subject, my drawing does not accurately reflect the real scene, because I felt that the composition could be improved, relative to the reality of what was there.

For example, my drawing shows a grounded railway wagon body on the left, next to the crossing. There was no such object at that crossing, although I’d seen similar carcasses in many other railway locations.

Nonetheless, my depiction of the gate itself is accurate. The North Eastern Railway, whose design it was, adopted a rather unusual practice of using extremely wide single gates to span multiple tracks, unlike most other railways (which would have used multiple gates in these cases). For my Advanced-Level Art architectural study, I eventually created a dimensioned drawing of a smaller gate of the same design at another station on the same line, Fyling Hall, as shown below.

FylingHallGateCright

Crossing Gate at Fyling Hall Station

From Heartbeat to Harry Potter

The Scarborough-Whitby railway was one of many targeted for closure by the notorious Beeching Report. There were many local protests regarding the planned closure of this line, and, during the 1964 national election, Harold Wilson of the Labour Party ran on a platform of promising to halt the Beeching-inspired closures. Unfortunately, it turned out that Wilson was just another lying politician, and after winning the election, he actually accelerated the closure schedule, as described in this post by transport commentator Christian Wolmar.

Following the closure, which took place on 6th March 1965, a fundraising effort began to try to buy up and reopen at least part of the Scarborough-Whitby route. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cost of repairs to structures on the line would exceed any conceivable budget, so the plan came to nothing.

However, the preservation effort then focused instead on another nearby line, which had been closed to passengers on the same day. This was the Whitby-Pickering Railway, which in fact was even more historic (albeit somewhat less scenic) than the Scarborough-Whitby route. The W&PR had originally been engineered by George Stephenson in 1836, and had relied on horse-drawn locomotion until it was connected to the national network in 1845.

As a result of all this, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway was formed, and began running trains in the early 1970s. I first visited the NYMR in 1975, and returned many times after that. The photo below shows Goathland Station on the NYMR in 1976, many years before it became world-famous.

GoathlandStn1976Cright

Before the Days of Fame: Goathland Station in 1976

The preserved NYMR met with great success, and was eventually able to extend its route all the way from Grosmont (junction with BR) to Pickering. I took the photo below of an express hauled by A4 locomotive “Sir Nigel Gresley” in Pickering in 2006.

PickeringNYMR1Cright

A4 “Sir Nigel Gresley” at Pickering, NYMR, 2006

The NYMR hired out its location for filming work, and, as a result, Goathland Station began to achieve recognition far beyond Yorkshire. During the 1990s, Goathland became “Aidensfield” in the TV soap opera Heartbeat, which ran from 1992 to 2010, and was broadcast around the world. The railway station appeared in many episodes.

Then, in 2001, Goathland Station appeared all around the world in movies, as the fictitious Hogsmeade Station in the Harry Potter films.

When I reluctantly produced that pencil drawing over 40 years ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined the worldwide fame that was to come to some of those disused and derelict Yorkshire railways!

Mondrian’s Mistake: the Illusion of Primary Colors

You Can Call Me Piet

You Can Call Me Piet

The image above is my own work, but was inspired by “Composition C” created in 1935 by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. I’ve been learning more about Mondrian’s life recently (mostly from the book Piet Mondrian: Life and Work), in connection with some design work I’m doing.

You’ll notice that the only colors in my artwork, as in Mondrian’s Composition C, are the so-called “primaries”: red, blue and yellow. Mondrian seems to have become quite obsessed with these particular colors, and he asserted that they somehow exist as special entities in the universe.

Mondrian was part of a group of artists who called themselves neoplasticists, and they published a magazine called De Stijl. As mentioned on page 194 of the book cited above, in 1917, Mondrian claimed in an article in De Stijl that:

All colors are available to our perceptions, but only true colors are susceptible to objective definition. The primary colors, which form the basis for all natural visible colors, fulfill this requirement.

The problem is that the claim is false, because the illusion of primary colors stems entirely from the quirks of the human visual system. Thus, there are no “true colors” in nature that could form the basis of other colors. Colors of light fall into a continuous electromagnetic spectrum, in which no color is more “true” or “primary” than any other.

There are no “primary colors” in nature.

Primary Colors don’t Exist

Those of us who received some type of artistic training at school probably remember being told by our teachers that there are 3 “primary colors”—red, yellow, and blue—from which all other colors may be mixed.

In fact, the illusion that there 3 primary colors stems from the fact that there are 3 types of color receptor cell in our eyes. If instead, due to the vagaries of evolution, our eyes had 2 or 4 such types of cell, our teachers would be telling us that there are 2 or 4 “primary colors” respectively!

An entire book (claimed to be the best-selling art book ever produced) has been written on the misunderstanding of the “artist’s primaries”: Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green by Michael Wilcox. Oddly, though, that very detailed book never makes any attempt to describe the human visual system and its light receptors. Instead, the author explains color mixing effects in paints as the results of impurities in the pigments (which is also true—the pigments are impure).

The Physiology of Human Vision

In a post on my professional blog, I explain in more detail how humans see color, and how additive and subtractive color systems work. These physiological limitations are a key to the basis of many color reproduction technologies, such as television and halftone printing.

Although research continues today on the subject of vision, the fact that human eyes have several different types of light detector has been known since about the 1850s.

For the details, see my professional post, but to summarize here, the human eye has 3 types of receptors for colors (“cones”), plus one further type for monochrome vision (“rods”). Of the 3 types of cones, there is one type that is most sensitive to red light, another that is most sensitive to green light, and a third that is most sensitive to blue light. Each color of light corresponds to a wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum.

In my diagram below, the sensitivity of the blue receptors is shown by the S (for “short”) curve, that of the green receptors by the M (for “Medium”) curve, and that of the red receptors by the L (for “Long”) curve. The R curve shows the sensitivity of the rod cells.

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

The Sensitivities of the Human Visual System

Light entering the eye may have any wavelength (i.e., any color) in the visible spectrum. Our brains determine the actual color by combining the intensities received by the three types of rod cell. For example, if yellow light enters our eyes, then the red and green cones see high intensities, while the blue cones see little intensity. The brain converts this information into the perception of yellow.

This means that our eyes can be fooled into seeing colors that are not actually present, by presenting combinations of other colors that trigger the receptors in the same way as the missing color. In fact, many display systems, such as color television, rely on this fact to create the illusion of continuous color from only 3 separate frequencies.

Artists’ so-called primaries are in fact the “subtractive primaries”, which are the complements of the “additive primaries” discerned by our eyes. The subtractive primary colors are more accurately named as magenta, yellow and cyan, respectively.

Primary Colors are in the Eyes of the Beholder

If you think a little about this situation, you can understand how the concept of “primary colors” arises. The fact that we see any color as being the combination of responses from 3 receptors gives the false impression that every color of light is somehow made up of proportions of 3 colors.

It may be disappointing to realize that, in the case of color vision, once again, we find that we don’t experience reality directly, but only a filtered version of it, due to the limitations of our senses.

Is it Art?

I should probably make it clear that I am not criticizing Mondrian’s artwork in this article, nor am I suggesting that he lacked artistic skills. The fact that he was misguided in his claims about primary colors does not detract from the quality of his artwork.

Personally, I was first introduced to Mondrian’s work as a teenager, during my Advanced-level Art studies. Our teacher showed us examples of his abstract work. While I don’t recall her ever explicitly saying so, I got the impression that we were supposed to conclude that it was not “real art”, but I do not agree with that conclusion.

Certainly, debates about the quality of Mondrian’s art did not prevent it from gaining popularity, even long after his death. During the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent designed an entire fashion line using designs inspired by Mondrian’s abstract paintings.

Colors we Can’t See

One implication of the continuity of the electromagnetic spectrum is that there are many “colors” that the human eye cannot see, because they fall outside the range of the receptors in our eyes. One example of this, which caused me some consternation when taking photographs, was the rendition of some flower colors.

In Spring in Britain, woodland areas are often carpeted with beautiful displays of flowers called bluebells. As the name suggests, the appearance of the flowers is bright blue. However, whenever I took photos of such displays (and particularly with a film camera), the color in the photo always came out purplish; not at all the color that my eyes saw in the original scene. The (poor quality) film photo below, from 2001, shows the results.

Bluebells, as captured on Film

Bluebells, as captured on Film

The reason for this apparent change of color is that the bluebells actually reflect ultraviolet light, which our eyes cannot see, but to which photographic film is sensitive.

Apparently, most humans cannot see the ultraviolet in this case; it isn’t just some color-blindness on my part. (I know I’m not color-blind, because I’ve been tested for it several times, such as when I applied for my apprenticeship at Ferranti.) If most people could see the ultraviolet wavelengths, then presumably the flowers would be called “purplebells”!

Modern digital cameras tend to give a more faithful rendition of the color, although it still seems too purple, as shown below in my photo dating from 2007.

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Bluebells as captured by a Digital Camera

Projecting Our Limitations onto the Universe

Mondrian’s false beliefs in this case are characteristic of much metaphysical theorizing, of a type that also occurs very frequently in religious thinking.

The error is to take some limitation or evolutionary quirk that applies only to the human condition, and then extrapolate that by claiming that it is a “universal truth”.

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing!