Sunday, April 27, 2014

Learning from Abbott H. Thayer

A.H. Thayer, diagrams of figure-ground relationships (c1909)

Richard S. Merryman, Wood Duck (c1909)
Above Two illustrations from the classic book on camouflage by Gerald Handerson Thayer (the author of record), in collaboration with his father, Abbott Handerson Thayer, titled Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (NY: Macmillan, 1909/1918). The figures in the top one show the concurrent use of disruption and blending that results from the use of alternate background colors. Below that is a painting (made specifically for the book) by an Abbott Thayer student and assistant, Richard S. Meryman, of a male Wood Duck in a natural setting. Writes Thayer: His dark areas, with all their varied colors, here "become a part" of the like-colored dark reflections in the water, and his white patterns exactly reproduce the bright sky reflections, so that he is so to speak "dissolved" into the scene.


A tribute to Abbott H. Thayer by the California Nature Study League (probably written by C.M. Goethe) in HOME CIRCLE DEPARTMENT: NATURE STUDIES PAY BIG DIVIDENDS in Pacific Rural Press, January 15, 1921, p. 159—

…[A] brilliant instance of humanitarian dividends from nature study is the history of camouflage during the Great War [WWI]. Every child is familiar with camouflage photographs, as of ships colored spookily with bands of black, gray, blue. Ones first impression at seeing a wartime boat, gun, or even trench helmet so camouflaged, was of haphazard work. Camouflage, however, is based on mathematical laws [sic]. Its theory grew from observations of a nature lover [Thayer], a grown-up boy who had learned to read a roadside. 

He grasped that Germany, to win the war, needed successful submarines. The Teuton, on losing the first battle of the Marne in 1914, could gain no victory on land. This American, with boyhood nature-study training, saw clearly, thought accurately. Studying coloring of mammals and birds, there flashed into his mind the concept of something better than solid protective colorings, like the battleship gray of our navy during the Spanish-American War.

He examined carefully the mathematics of color patterns of such birds as the meadowlark, of such mammals as the chipmunk. From these he formulated certain mathematical laws Nature herself worked out so efficiently during hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Enthuiastic over democracy's winning the war, he offered the theory to gasping France. With the usual speed of the Gallic imagination, the French General Staff glimpsed the possibility of thus blocking Germany's only way to forcing her kultur on all mankind.

Thus color patterns of grouse, deer, skunk were made the basis of camouflaging troop transports, of food vessels, of cannon. The coming of the Armistice Day was hastened.

The above answers "Does Nature Study Pay?"

Study carefully color patterns of such common birds, say the kildeer or any common sparrow. Think of the old theory of solid color like battleship gray compared with the camouflage of the Great War. Run through nature study books in your library such as Thayer's Concealing Coloration. Its illustrations will suggest new lines of thought in this fascinating study…

Abbott Handerson Thayer: A Beautiful Law of Nature (2014)