Monday, January 21, 2013

Camouflage Artist | Charles Bittinger

Anon, painting of a WWI US dazzle-camouflaged ship (1918).

American artist-scientist Charles Bittinger was born on June 27, 1879. Originally from Washington DC, he studied for two years at MIT, with the intention of becoming a scientist. He then switched to painting, and went off to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and other French schools. There he married a concert singer named Edith Gay, and returned to the US to study at the Art Students League. 

During World War I, he was one of the artists who studied at a camouflage training school established in New York by William Andrew MacKay (Yates 1919). He also worked for the US Navy at Eastman Kodak Laboratories with physicist Loyd A. Jones on the development of ship camouflage.

Camouflaged USS Zirkel (1918), digital coloring

Between the wars, Bittinger relocated to Washington DC, and began to experiment with the use of science in making art. In 1929, he painted three murals for the Franklin Institute, depicting stages in the life of Benjamin Franklin. When observed in incandescent light, each painting appeared to be a certain picture, but when viewed under ultraviolet light, it appeared to be an entirely different picture. In 1935, Bittinger exhibited another work in which Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight appeared under normal viewing conditions, but the same painting became the Mona Lisa when viewed through an optical instrument that Bittinger had invented.

The following is an excerpt from Literary Digest (1921) that talks about his tandem use of art and science for inventive purposes:

…Charles Bittinger, a scientist who is primarily an artist, has hit upon the idea of utilizing these differences, increasing them where possible and making them serve his purpose. During the war Mr. Bittinger served in the department of camouflage of the United States Navy, conducting experiments in reflection and transmission of light-waves. By means of the spectro-photometer, he established the reflective powers of a number of pigments and dyes that had invisible spectral differences, and, with a palette set with paintings similar in color when seen in a white light, but contrasting sharply in degrees of light and dark when seen under a red light, painted his two-fold pictures, using round brushes for one series of paints and triangular ones for the other, to avoid confusion in the work.…

In Mr. Bittinger’s New York studio is a miniature stage set with a scene on the Riviera, which immediately changes to Madison Square in winter when the red light is switched on. Costumes, too, can be handled in endless effective ways by applying the principle to the dyes used and to the patterns in which the colors are put on. A chorus might come dancing on in dresses with horizontal stripes. The light changes—and instantly the stripes are vertical…

Mr. Bittinger has painted an airplane wing with the German cross upon it, which when viewed by our army through binoculars equipped with a red filter, discloses itself to be not the German cross, but the red, white and blue of the Allies. Thus an airplane could fly unscathed over the German lines and return home again without being fired upon.

Bittinger's research was also described scientifically by Walter Clark (1939) as follows:

Some observations by Bittinger may be mentioned in connection with the separation by photographic means of two colors which are visually identical. He selected paints having predetermined and known reflection characteristics and a spectral difference which was not apparent to the eye. Scenes were painted in these colors, and illuminated with light of one color to produce a certain visual effect. By changing the spectral quality of the light in accordance with the known invisible spectral difference in the paints, he was able to produce an entirely different visual effect. For instance, in one example the painting shows a summer scene when viewed by white light, and an entirely different winter scene when illuminated by red light.

Bittinger (c1931) working on a project for the US Bureau of Standards

In 1937, Bittinger was invited jointly by the US Navy and the National Geographic Society to travel to Canton Island in the Pacific to paint a total solar eclipse. Nearly a decade later, he was the official artist for Operation Crossroads, for which he was one of the artists to paint the first atomic explosion at the Bikini Atoll in 1946. The paintings he made for the latter are posted online here by the US Naval Historical Center.

During World War II, he once again worked on ship camouflage for the U.S. Navy, in which he was the administrative overseer of the research of such camouflage artists as Everett Warner (who was the head of the camouflage team), Bennet Buck, Sheffield H. Kagy, William Walters, Arthur S. Conrad, and Robert Hays. When Bittinger died on December 18, 1970, his obituary in the Washington Post included this statement:

Mr. Bittinger served in the Navy during both world wars, receiving the Legion of Merit in 1946 for his work in the camouflage section of the Bureau of Ships. 

Patents by Charles Bittinger
US Patent No. 1,342,247 [June 1, 1920]: Combining Reflected and Transmitted Light Waves of Varying Lengths to Produce Subjective Changes in Scenic Effects.
US Patent No. 1,629,250 [May 17, 1927]: Production and Utilization of Diachronic Inks.
US Patent No. 1,781,999 [March 16, 1929]: Rear View Mirror.
US Patent No. 1,934,310 [with E.O. Hulburt, November 7, 1933]: Visibility Meter and Method of Measuring Visibility.
Anon, “Two Paintings in One” in Literary Digest, March 12, 1921, p. 25.
Anon, “First ‘Invisible’ Murals in Franklin Institute” in New York Times, June 8, 1934, p. 14.
Anon, “By Any Other Light” in New York Times, March 3, 1935, p. X18.
Roy R. Behrens, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009, pp. 54-57.
Roy R. Behrens, ed., Ship Shape: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2012.
Charles Bittinger, “Naval Camouflage” in US Naval Proceedings, October 1940, pp. 1394-1398.
“Charles Bittinger, 91, Dies” (obituary) in Washington Post, December 20, 1970, p. B12.
Walter Clark, Photography by Infra-Red: Its Principles and Application. New York: John Wiley, 1939.
Raymond Francis Yates, “The Science of Camouflage Explained” in Everyday Engineering Magazine, March 1919, pp. 253-256 (reprinted in Behrens 2012).