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 cone 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!

Almost a Winner

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

I painted the picture above, depicting a fictitious medieval city, in school, at the age of 14, and thought little of it at the time. It was just another one of many that I churned out during my Ordinary-level classes in Art. We were largely restricted to inventing subjects from our imaginations, because there was little reference material available and we weren’t allowed to leave the school during classes.

However, about a year later, my teacher chose this particular picture as an entry in a national art competition, where it was awarded a “runners up” certificate.

That was not the first recognition I’d won for my art skills, despite never having sought prizes for any of it. In fact, the first prize I ever won for anything was for drawing, at Newby County Primary school when I was aged 6. The award I was given for that was a copy of the book Little Grey Rabbit finds a Shoe, by Alison Uttley. Given the nature of the book, I’ve always suspected that the person responsible for obtaining the prizes had assumed that the winner would be a girl, because it didn’t seem like an ideal choice for a six-year-old boy!

Digital Salvation

Unfortunately, in the case of my 1974 painting above, and as with many of the other surviving paintings that I did at school, the cheap poster paint that we had to use is decomposing. You can see many white blotches in the blue sky, looking somewhat like aerial smoke bombs detonating! Those were not originally present, but are the result of the white paint compound separating from the tinting chemicals.

Thus, I recently took the opportunity to scan the painting before it deteriorates further, which was partly what prompted me to write this article now. The original dimensions are about 16“ x 11”, thus too large for my scanner. However, I was able to scan the paper in parts, then stitch the result together in such a way that the edges are almost invisible.

The Kellogg’s National Exhibition of Children’s Art

It seems that the American cereal company, Kellogg’s, organized a National Exhibition of Children’s Art in London every year, from the 1960s through to some time in the 1970s. The only online record of it that I’ve been able to find is a copy of an invitation to enter the “exhibition” in 1976, which apparently appeared on the back of packets of Corn Flakes. (The clichéd “happy corporate collage” artwork on the cereal packet is amusing. Of course, they couldn’t possibly promote a children’s art exhibition by using…er…actual children’s art, could they?)

As far as I recall, I was unaware of those exhibitions at the time, and my entry in the 1975 contest was entirely initiated by my teacher. I definitely didn’t fill in any back-of-a-cereal-packet entry form. The only official acknowledgement that I received was the certificate below (which isn’t even dated). Nobody invited me to attend the actual exhibition, during that or any other year.

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

It was certainly also the case that my parents did not encourage me to exhibit my artwork. Unfortunately, they took a pessimistic attitude to most things along the lines of, “it’s not worth trying because you’re bound to fail”. When faced with other parents who actively helped their children in such activities, they simply dismissed such behavior as being “pushy”. Nothing worse than a “pushy parent”, you know!

Competitive Art? I’d Rather Not!

While I have no objections to art exhibitions, I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of “art competitions”. After all, who has the competence or authority to decide which works of art are “better”? Yes; you can determine that one artwork is better-drawn or better-executed than another—that one artist is more technically competent than another—and I do that myself all the time. But does that make one artwork “better” than the other? Not necessarily. If you must turn an exhibition into a competition, wouldn’t it be better to make it a “artist contest” instead of an “art contest”?

I understand that, even in a non-competitive exhibition, there has to be someone to decide which entries will “make the cut”. Given that Kellogg’s were soliciting entries for their exhibition on the backs of cereal packets, someone would obviously need to review all entries, even if only to determine which entries met the basic conditions (e.g., to determine that they were actually produced by children). That kind of basic judgment doesn’t really turn an exhibition into a contest, unless the promoters deliberately aim to do that.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people seem to want to turn every human endeavor into a contest, so when someone promotes contests in inappropriate areas, all too many people support the idea, instead of treating it with the skepticism, or possibly even contempt, that it may deserve.

It’s true that I have entered my own artworks in exhibitions that involve judging and prizegiving, such as my Moggies cartoons, which were displayed at some Sonoma County Fairs. Sometimes my entries have won, but sometimes they received no award at all. I try to maintain as detached a view as possible of those events and the responses to my entries.

Encouraging Originality

Surely, art is about the wide variety of ways in which artists see and interpret the universe, and reducing all that to a contest misses much of the value of art. The judgments that are necessary to determine contest winners will inevitably give the impression that one or two viewpoints are superior to all others, thus discouraging the very exploration and variety that is essential to art.

The Story Of Reading Evenings

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

The pencil drawing above is a surviving sample of the life drawing work that I did at sessions in Reading during 1986-7. If you understood the word “Reading” here as referring to the reading of a book, then the title and first sentence of this post must have seemed quite meaningless.

In fact, Reading in this context is the name of a town in England, about 40 miles west of London, and it’s pronounced “Redding”. Reading forms the hub of an area known as the M4 Corridor, where huddle many of Britain’s remaining electronics technology industries. That was also true in the 1980s, when Britain had many more such industries than it does today.

Reading was perhaps first made famous during the nineteenth century by Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, and wrote a lengthy poem called The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In that poem, he wrote:

In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame…

I’m glad to be able to say that the hours I spent in Reading were definitely not in any “pit of shame” (except perhaps for certain pubs…).

More recently, of course, Reading has again achieved fame as the birthplace of comedian Ricky Gervais, who wrote a movie named after an area of the town: Cemetery Junction.

A New Venue

In an earlier article, I described how I attended Life Drawing classes in Andover during 1985-86, while I was living there and working for Link Electronics. Unfortunately, despite having created some brilliant products, Link turned out to be just one more failing British company, with the result that I was laid off in June 1985, when their management decided to shut down the design and manufacture of television cameras.

After searching for suitable alternative employment for a few weeks, I accepted a Design Engineering position with a small digital video equipment company called Questech, who were based in Wokingham, Berkshire. (As you may have guessed, because it has become such a repetitive theme, Questech is also now long out-of-business.) Although I was still living in Andover, I could no longer attend the sessions at Cricklade College, so I looked around to find something similar in the nearest large town to Wokingham, which was Reading. I eventually found a suitable class at a branch of the University of Reading, on Bath Road.

Just to demonstrate that life drawing models aren’t always female, here’s an example of one of my drawings from Reading that featured a male model.

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

However, those drawing sessions were not by any means the first time I’d visited Reading, because I’d had a somewhat ambivalent connection to the town since 1978.

Revisiting Reading

I had actually first traveled to Reading in 1978, while living in Coventry. While at school in Scarborough, I had had a crush on a girl who had gone on to study at the University of Reading. Had I been more mature, I would have realized that my crush was futile, but I was just another irrational teenager…

Thus one day—her birthday, in fact—I had the “bright idea” to go to Reading and seek out her room in the beautiful Wantage Hall.

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

I don’t think that I was really intending to try to meet up with her during that visit, but in fact I did, along with her new boyfriend! Fortunately, it all seemed to go fairly amicably, which perhaps was partly because she was still half-asleep during our unplanned meeting! It turned out to be the last time I ever saw her, which was probably just as well for all of us.

I did spend some time wandering around the town. One of the first features that struck me was the Town Hall, which, for people of my age, was very reminiscent of the building in the children’s animated series Trumpton.

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading has some fairly pleasant footpaths along the banks of the River Thames. I took the photo below, of Caversham Bridge, while walking alongside the river in rain.

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

The arms below are those of the Borough of Reading, which used to appear on the sides of all Reading Transport buses.

Arms of the Borough of Reading

Arms of the Borough of Reading

The Equalizer Stops By for a Pint

When attending those 1980s drawing sessions, I rushed there straight from Wokingham, immediately after finishing work for the day. Once the drawing session was over, I was naturally hungry for dinner, so I would visit a local pub before beginning the journey home to Andover.

One pub that I frequented nearby was, and still is, called the Lyndhurst. Below is a modern Google Streetview of the location.

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

When I visited the pub in those days, one regular customer was a man who never offered anyone his name, but was known by the bartender as The Equalizer [warning: link plays video]. This was because he looked quite like Edward Woodward, who at the time was starring in an American TV series as the eponymous character. I still don’t know who the man in the pub was, so maybe someone will read this article and enlighten us?

As I said, the Lyndhurst is still in business today, serving good food, so probably worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Reading!

The Invention of Wheeled Luggage


Luggage As It Was: Pencil Drawing, 1977

Luggage As It Was: Pencil Drawing, 1977

The pencil drawing above is another example of the weekly homework assignments that I completed when studying for my Advanced-Level Art qualification during the 1970s (as described in a previous post).

It’s obvious that the topic of this particular assignment was “luggage”, and the image would be extremely mundane, but notice something that none of the luggage items in the picture possess: wheels!

In retrospect, it seems incredible that the idea of adding wheels to suitcases took so long to develop. The first patent for the idea wasn’t granted until 1970. These days, most people wouldn’t consider buying a suitcase that did not have wheels and a handle, but, only 40 years ago, the lack of those features went completely unnoticed.

Learning the Hard Way

My family were anything but “seasoned travelers”, so, growing up, I had very little experience of packing and of taking luggage with me on journeys.

My parents also felt that buying new suitcases was an unnecessary extravagance, so they made do with a few decomposing leather examples, most of which probably dated from before World War II. These were typical cases of the time; strong, but with soft sides, one handle on top, and definitely no wheels or even sliders.

On the few occasions when we did pack suitcases to travel somewhere, we typically traveled by car, so loading the packed cases into the car, and unloading them at our destination, didn’t present any serious problems.

Coventry Railway Station 1979; scene of my luggage struggles

Coventry Railway Station 1979; scene of my luggage struggles

When I began attending Warwick University in 1978, therefore, it was effectively my first experience of having to transport myself and any significant amount of belongings from one location to another without benefit of a car. Naturally, we didn’t buy a new suitcase, so I inherited one of my parents’ ancient leather ones.

A few weeks after the start of the Autumn term, I decided that it would be nice to spend the weekend at home, which was only a few hours away by train. I also thought it would be a great idea to bring home with me a few of the new books that I’d purchased in Coventry. So, one Friday morning, I loaded up my suitcase and set off from my room in Coventry towards the railway station.

Needless to say, it was a disaster, because I couldn’t carry the heavy suitcase for more than a few hundred yards without having to stop and rest. Even getting from the University to the bus stop, to catch a bus to the railway station, became a Herculean task. I was saved only when a passing motorist took pity on me and offered me a ride in his car to the station.

Here was a problem that I’d never previously considered, and it became obvious that, as I acquired more possessions, the problem was only going to get worse.

Let’s Add some Wheels

As a result of my journeys, I soon noticed that more seasoned travelers had solved the problem of transporting suitcases by investing in sets of folding, add-on wheels, to which bags could be attached using bungee cords.

I quickly purchased such a set myself, which made a huge difference to the portability of my suitcases. In fact, you can still buy “luggage carts” like these, but the availability of wheeled suitcases means that they are less popular than they once were. I continued to use those wheels, and those suitcases, for many more years. I didn’t buy a suitcase with wheels until after I’d emigrated to California.

The final significant advancement in wheeled luggage, which everyone who flies now takes for granted, was the “Rollaboard”, which wasn’t invented until 1987, by a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 pilot.

Making the Drawing More Interesting

Returning to the details of my drawing above, even at that time, I considered the subject of luggage to be extremely dull. Therefore, although the bags and cases in the drawing are themselves based on real objects, and were drawn from life, most other items in the picture came strictly from my imagination.

For example, the young woman standing behind the suitcases certainly wasn’t anyone known to me, although the clothes she’s wearing are quite typical of those worn in those days by the girls at the Scarborough Sixth Form College.

The man walking by in the background is also pure invention. I’m not sure whether my art teacher realized that I had actually invented much of the drawing, but I didn’t really care!

New Year’s Eve: Then & Now

New Year's Eve, 1977

New Year’s Eve, 1977

The photo above was taken exactly 40 years ago, on New Year’s Eve, 1977. The location was the War Memorial near the summit of Oliver’s Mount, in Scarborough, which as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, was a prime spot for sky and cloud photography.

According to my records, this particular photo was taken at 3.05 that afternoon, indicative of the shortness of days at that time of year. The sky that afternoon seemed to me to be heavy with a sense of foreboding, which turned out to be appropriate, because many tumultuous events were about to occur in my life during the ensuing few years. In retrospect it seems like an incredible and very scary roller-coaster ride, ending only ten years later, in 1987, when I found myself spending my first New Year on a different continent, here in California.

The Birds Just Won’t Pose

Yesterday, a flock of Robins and Waxwings appeared in the ornamental pear trees in front of our house. This is a fairly common event here during Winter, but it was the first time this year that I’d noticed the two species together in the trees.


Robin & Waxwing in a Pear Tree

I mentioned in an earlier post that these scenes formed the inspiration for the design of our 2017 Yuletide Card, titled Sonoma Winter Birds.

One advantage of being able to draw, and so create my own artwork, is that I can pose my subjects in whatever way results in the best composition. For the card design, I was able to position the two birds close to each other, striking exactly the poses that I wanted. For the robin, I knew the pose that I wanted, but was unable to find any reference material showing one in that position. Nonetheless, understanding something of the anatomy of birds meant that I could create a convincing pose from my imagination, aided by images of similar species, as below.


Sonoma Winter Birds

Back when I was learning to draw, the usefulness of that skill in this age of photography was sometimes questioned. Why spend hours creating a realistic image, when the camera can achieve equivalent or better results in a fraction of a second? It has since become clear to me that natural history subjects are one area where drawing skill continues to offer an advantage over photography.

No matter how good their equipment, photographers do not have the luxury of being able to conjure up a scene from their imaginations. When shooting natural history subjects, they must be content with whatever poses their actors choose to adopt. My own photo above shows that, even though the birds were together in the same tree, they were never close enough to each other so that I could capture them in the same frame. Instead, I simply created a composite bitmap of 2 photos.

Even so, there’s no doubt that the abundance of photographs of any desired subject provides a treasury of reference material that was simply unavailable to earlier generations of illustrators. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.

Happy New Year 2018!

My best wishes to all of you for a joyous and prosperous 2018!

Our Yuletide Cards are On the Way


Sonoma Winter Birds

Sonoma Winter Birds

All our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients, as of Wednesday.

This year’s cover design is called Sonoma Winter Birds, and features a Cedar Waxwing and an American Robin. I took inspiration for the design from something that’s a common sight in our area at this time of year. Wherever there are trees with berries, we see mixed flocks of waxwings and robins descending to feast on the fruit.

The painting was produced with ink and watercolor. For the robin’s breast, I used Japanese-made vermilion sumi ink, which provides a strong festive highlight for the image (and happens to be just about the correct shade of orange-red!).

Robins for Christmas?

In a previous post, about a year ago, I discussed the popularity of Eurasian Robins in Britain, as a seasonal icon on Christmas cards and other holiday decorations. Apparently, that tradition is limited only to Britain, and doesn’t extend to other European countries.

When I was discussing the design of this year’s card with Mary, she pointed out that, in the more northerly parts of North America, some robins migrate south for Winter, and are thus less likely to be seen in the seasonal landscape. In those areas, some people even look out for the “first robin of Spring”, although the idea that there are no robins around in Winter seems to be a myth, according to this article.

Here, in more southerly climes, our resident robins not only stick around for Winter, but the numbers may actually increase, because of birds migrating from the north. Their behavior also changes, presumably because of variations in the food supply. During the warmer months, robins forage alone, or at least not in organized flocks. It’s only in Winter that they travel together with birds of their own species and other species.

QR Code Link

This year, for the first time, I included on the card a QR code that, when scanned, takes you to a landing page in this blog ( We’ve always included a printed copy of our letter with the cards we send, and sometimes people ask for a PDF version of that. Now, people can just navigate to the online letter, and print a version for themselves in PDF, or any other format, if they wish.

Of course, to scan the QR code, you need a scanner app for your smartphone (or similar device with a camera). There are many such apps available free, and I’m not recommending any particular one here. However, the app I use in my Android devices is the Kaspersky Labs scanner:

A nice feature of the Kaspersky app is that it warns you if a QR code is malicious, which is always a risk, because the web address to which the code points is not human-readable.

Our New Production Plan Succeeded

Following the card production problems that arose last year, Mary and I agreed on a new “division of labor” for the various tasks. I’m pleased to say that the new arrangements seem to have worked very well, with the unplanned result that we’ve been able to send out the cards earlier than ever before.

We also avoided the atmosphere of “last-minute panic” that has sometimes accompanied the task on previous occasions!

Yuletide “Backup” Artwork for 2017


Waxwings & Berries

Waxwings & Berries

The picture above is not the artwork for our 2017 Yuletide card, although our cards just arrived back from the printer yesterday, and I’ll be sharing the actual artwork for that as soon as we send out the cards (which I hope will be during this week).

When I began working on a painting for this year’s card, I was painfully aware that the possibilities for messing it up were rife. (In fact, that’s one major advantage of creating artwork digitally instead of via conventional methods; with digital artwork you can always hit Undo!) When working on a conventional painting, it only takes one slip of the brush, or perhaps one drop of spilled coffee, and the whole project is ruined.

Therefore, I decided to create a simpler piece of “backup artwork”, which I could use for the card if some disaster befell the main painting. Thus I created the vaguely “Charley Harper” style design shown above, using Corel Draw.

Fortunately, I didn’t mess up the main watercolor artwork, so I didn’t need to substitute this design. Nonetheless, I realized that I could easily adapt it for use as a decoration for our return address labels, so that’s what I did.

I mentioned on another page that I had decided to stop producing “Asian New Year” designs for the return address labels of our cards, because the time taken to do that detracted from the creation of the card itself. Thus, things worked out well for me this year!

Monochrome Film Photography


St. Mary's Church, Castlegate, York, in 1977I took the photo above, showing the church of St. Mary’s, Castlegate, York, during 1977. It was taken with Ilford FP4 film.

At that time, most of my photographs were taken with monochrome 35mm film, which I developed and printed myself. Most of them were taken for record purposes, without any serious attempt to produce high-quality or artistic results. Nonetheless, the photo above turned out to be one of the best, in terms of composition and tonal balance.

Thinking back now on those days, in this age of ubiquitous digital photography, the concerns and challenges of film photography seem like part of an alien world. Everything seemed more complex, and it was also quite an expensive pursuit. There was no instant feedback; you had to wait for a photograph to be developed before you could assess the quality, which led to much waste, increasing the effective cost of the photographs that ended up being usable.

The Accidental Photographer

During the 1960s my father became a keen amateur photographer. He owned several cameras, plus a complete suite of darkroom equipment, including two enlargers. He was a member of the Scarborough Camera Club, and regularly exhibited his work at their shows. He used a variety of film formats, from 35mm monochrome, through to much larger negative formats in color or monochrome. He developed and printed monochrome film images himself, and although he experimented with developing and printing color images, he found that too complex and expensive to be worthwhile.

By the mid-1970s, my father’s health had deteriorated to the point that he no longer took an active interest in photography, so I found myself “inheriting” all his equipment. At the same time, I was developing an interest in local history, and was soon to begin my Advanced-Level Art study of architecture, so I was able to make perfect use of his equipment. Nonetheless, I had to make tradeoffs regarding cost and quality.

Predicting Digital Photography

In 1983, during my final year as an undergraduate electronic engineering student at Imperial College, London, we were required to prepare a group report on a relevant topic. My group chose to write a report on possible future developments in telecommunications.

One of the future technologies that we predicted was the development of digital cameras. Our prediction wasn’t really too much of a stretch, because digital framestores already existed, and low-resolution framestores were already used in computer monitors.

It took some time for digital image technology to eclipse film, but for all practical purposes we have now reached that point. Perhaps surprisingly, given my professional contributions to digital video technology, even when digital cameras first became available, I continued to use 35mm film (albeit sometimes output to Kodak Photo CD format), on the grounds that digital images were not of comparable quality.

Eventually, however, the digital technology caught up, and the image quality now available even from some phone cameras now surpasses that possible with 35mm film. (Using 35mm film involved so many variables that the ideally-achievable quality was almost never achieved in reality.)

Return to Castlegate

Some 22 years later, in 1999, my wife and I stayed in the Stakis Hotel (now the Hilton) in York, which was constructed later on the site of the brick building in the left foreground of the 1977 photo above.

The present-day Google Streetview version of the same York location can be seen here.

“Such a Vision of the Street”

In his beautiful poem Preludes, written more than a century ago, T S Eliot masterfully evoked the dingy ambience of a rainy urban street.

I was also inspired by night-time photographs of urban settings by other photographers, and I realized that my monochrome film was fast enough to be used at night, if the camera was on a tripod.

One rainy evening, I took my father’s heavy wooden tripod with me to the Odeon roundabout in Scarborough, next to the railway station, and set it up to take some experimental shots. Not all of the photos came out well, but some were quite effective.

The photo below shows the entrance to the Odeon Cinema (now the Stephen Joseph Theatre), when passengers had just alighted from a United 101 service bus. The reflection of light from the wet road surface was particularly effective in this shot.

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

Scarborough Odeon at night, 1977

You can see that the Odeon was showing the movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again, which, on another night, I did actually go to see at that cinema.

In those photographs, I was trying to capture the atmosphere of that rainy evening, as eloquently described in Eliot’s poem:

The conscience of a blackened street

Impatient to assume the world.

Goodbye to All That

When I went away to university at the end of 1978, I couldn’t take my father’s processing equipment with me. I continued to take photographs for many more years using Kodachrome transparency film, but that transition marked the end of my brief “career” as a film photographer who processed his own images.

You Can Call Me Al(phonse)

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

The image above is somewhat adapted from an ink-and-brush poster that I designed for a 1982 lecture on Hypnosis, presented by Imperial College’s H G Wells Society.

Like many artists, I have drawn much inspiration from the work of others. Some have said that no art exists in a cultural vacuum; all art is in some way derived from that of previous works. For this poster, I was strongly inspired by a poster created by the great Czech Art Nouveau illustrator, Alphonse Mucha.

At that time, while trying to generate ideas for the design of the Hypnosis lecture poster, I’d just bought the book Alphonse Mucha: the Graphic Works (cover shown below) from the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum.

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

One work that was reproduced in the book, and which particularly appealed to me, was a poster produced by Mucha for a 1921 exhibition of his own work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I borrowed ideas not only from Mucha, but also from other artists; in fact, the line technique that I used for the hair was inspired by the work of the British illustrator, Robin Jacques.

The Poster

Frankly, my poster design was a bit of a muddle (to put it mildly), because, although it was a striking design that achieved its purpose of attracting attendees to the lecture, I’d completely lost sight of the Art Nouveau style of Mucha’s composition.

For that reason, I decided that I didn’t want to reproduce the original poster here, so the illustration above is an adaptation of my original painting, with some of the most incongruous aspects covered over or redrawn!

My design is monochrome-only, for reasons that I explained in a recent post on my professional blog. The Student Union’s printing equipment was not capable of printing in full color, so, for speed and simplicity, all my poster designs were monochrome.

The Lecture

The lecture on hypnosis that my poster advertised was presented by Martin S Taylor, who soon thereafter went on to become the Editor of the Imperial College Student newspaper, Felix (which traces its ancestry back to the founding of the Science Schools Journal by H G Wells).

I recall Martin’s lecture (and accompanying demonstration) as being utterly fascinating, as indeed were most of the H G Wells Society’s presentations at that time.

Martin’s successor as Felix editor was Pallab Ghosh, whom I’ve already mentioned in a previous post.

Martin was an IC student at the time of the lecture, but apparently he went on to make something of a career of hypnosis, as described on his own web site:

Living by the Sea


Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

The photo above shows (from left to right) my mother, me and my brother enjoying ice cream cones on the beach in September 1963.

I generally don’t give much thought to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life living in coastal areas, in homes which, even if some did not have a direct view of the sea, were only a few miles from it.

This wasn’t entirely a deliberate policy on my part, and things just seem to have worked out that way. Nonetheless, I’m very glad that things did work out that way!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my parents and my grandparents all came from Leeds, and they used to look forward to annual vacations in Scarborough and other coastal Yorkshire towns. (They usually seemed to choose Yorkshire destinations, although my grandparents did occasionally venture further afield, to such exotic locations as Grange-over-Sands!)

In those days, the air in coastal towns was much cleaner than in inland industrial cities, so there was a clear health benefit to living by the sea. The photo below of Scarborough Harbour, which was also taken by my father in 1963, shows smoke rising from buildings, a nuisance that was much worse in inland locations. The image also includes various other nostalgic features, such as a fleet of fishing boats and a commercial cargo ship in the Harbour!

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

In 1972, while still living in Scarborough, I bought my first copy of Railway Magazine. Given that the magazine has been published continuously since 1897, there was nothing momentous about that event, except for the cover of that edition, which didn’t mean much to me at the time.

Railway Magazine, September 1972

Railway Magazine, September 1972

As shown, the cover featured the famous locomotive Flying Scotsman, which I recognized, but I was completely oblivious as to the location. I knew that the locomotive was touring the USA, but that was all. In fact, it shows Flying Scotsman at a far-away seaside location, near Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco. How prophetic for me!

(The astonishing subsequent story of how Flying Scotsman’s owner went bankrupt during its US tour, leaving the locomotive impounded at Fort Mason, can be read about here.)

The sea often featured in my childhood paintings, as in the image below, which I produced at school, at the age of 14. It purports to show a British flying boat over New York, although at that time I’d never seen New York except in pictures. (The cheap paint used in the picture has decomposed over the years. Originally, there was a calm moon shining over the sea, but now it seems to be exploding!)

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

A Very Significant Sea Change

In November 1987, I arrived for my new job in San Mateo, California, and found myself once again in a seaside location, albeit on the opposite coast of a different continent. I was initially quite confused, because I hadn’t been aware of the existence of San Francisco Bay, so, living on the Peninsula, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking west at the Pacific Ocean, or east at the Bay!

Nonetheless, I soon figured out the local geography, and settled down to live the remainder of my life by the sea! The 1996 photo below shows a view over San Francisco Bay from the kitchen of our house in San Mateo.

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996