Sunday, July 6, 2014

Countershading | Thayer's Disappearing Ducks

from MAS Context (Summer 2014)
We have featured earlier posts about American artist and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer’s use of wooden duck decoys to demonstrate countershading. Additional information continues to surface almost daily. Some of this is detailed in an essay in the Summer 2014 issue of a Chicago-based design and architecture magazine called MAS Context. Here’s the link to the free online version, with the title page above. Other discoveries are below.


Barry Faulkner, Barry Faulkner: Sketches from an Artist’s Life. Dublin NH: William L. Bauhan, 1973, p. 18—

My first vivid memory of [his cousin] Abbott Thayer recalls him crouching in the dust of School Street, demonstrating to Mrs. Weeks, our teacher of drawing in the public schools, his newly evolved theory of Obliterative Gradation, or Protective Coloration—the foundations of his discovery of why birds and animals are difficult to see against their natural background.

The demonstration consisted of two small wooden ducks, mounted on wires, both painted the color of the dirt on which they stood, representing for the moment a natural background. One duck stood out solid and rotund, but the other Thayer had painted darker on its back and lighter on its belly until it had no more solidity than a cobweb. Suddenly a frightened cat bounded between Thayer’s legs, avoided the ungraded duck and dashed into and knocked over the duck it couldn’t see.  Cousin Abbott was as happy as a child at the cat’s vindication of his theory. Mrs. Weeks was entertained, if not enlightened.


George Palmer Putnam, Wide Margins: A Publisher’s Autobiography. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. 1942, p. 33—

We who were at Dublin [NH, where Abbott Thayer lived] were forever having first-hand lessons in protective coloring. Perhaps it would be dummies of birds set out in conspicuous places. Some were painted as in actual life, their upper parts dark, light below. Others had this reversed, with dark breasts and bottoms, and light backs. Those concocted in nature's way flattened amazingly against any routine background; the light below and the dark above, counteracting shadow and brilliance, made flat planes. These visual decoys we'd constantly trip over. But the others, where nature's process was reversed, stood out brutally in any environment.


Mary Fuertes Boynton, ed., Louis Agassiz Fuertes: His Life Briiefly Told and His Correspondence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 119—

[The Thayers’ book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom] is weakened only by its tone…and by the ambiguity of some, and prominence of others, of the illustrations. For example, in the photographs of models used to display the effect of countershading, the shaded model disappears so completely that you cannot believe it was ever there in the first place; an altered or falsified picture would have been more persuasive.


Fabian, “The Bushlover” in The Brisbane Courier (Queensland AU), October 9, 1926, p. 18—

An interesting experiment was made a short time ago at the British Museum of Natural History to demonstrate the great advantage of Nature’s commonest color arrangement among living creatures. Most of us have noticed that the great majority of animals are colored darker above and lighter below, and this is true, not only of nearly all our marsupials, but of most of the native birds as well. The rule holds good, too, in the case of fish, and, as more light comes from above than from below, the desired result is that the average fish in water becomes almost transparent and invisible. The British Museum experiment was carried out by Mr. [Abbott] Thayer, of America. He lined a large square box with gray flannel and placed in it two bird models, which were fastened to a rod running through the middle of the box. Both of these were covered with flannel, cut from the same material as that used to line the box, but one was painted dark above and white below, while the other was left in its plain gray. To the surprise of many observers the uncolored bird was decidedly the more conspicuous, and it was stated that at a few yards’ distance the painted bird, by counteracting the normal light and shade, was almost invisible. In Australia this color scheme for birds is a very common one. It is worth noting also that our really brilliant birds are almost always those of the dense shrubs, where protection is comparatively easy, while the birds of the plains and the open grassy spaces are far more protectively colored.


Roger Pocock, “The Art of Concealment: Devices on Land and Sea” in The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) January 3, 1918, p. 6—

On the permanent staff of the Natural History Museum in London, there are two little wooden ducks…They are dressed in gray flannel, and each housed in a glass case with a gray flannel background. No. 1 duck is dressed in a plain gray flannel, and you can see her plainly at a hundred yards, because of the dark shadows cast by her neck and body, as well as by the brightness of her back. No. 2 duck is slightly whitened underneath to counteract the shadows, and slightly bronzed on top to counteract the light. Even at six feet the showcase appears to be empty. There is no sign of a duck. No hawk, no fox, no sportsman with a scatter gun and a small dog could possibly discover or kill the invisible duck unless she moved or made foolish quacks to guide her enemies. A great many years ago I wrote to Lords of the [British] Admiralty imploring them to go and see the invisible duck who could teach them priceless lessons in the art of concealing battleships and cruisers…


James Devaney, “Nature Notes: An Experiment” in The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, Queensland AU), June 5, 1935, p. 4—

To illustrate just what it is which makes some birds hard to see, an interesting experiment was carried out by the American painter Abbott Thayer, who was also a keen Nature student. He wanted to prove how the darker back and lighter belly is a color scheme which tends to make birds less visible, so he made two wooden ducks as models. These he seated in a box on a perch, and both the interior of the box and the wooden ducks themselves were covered with brownish flannel. The ducks, exactly the same hue as their surroundings, were still plainly visible at a good distance. Then the experimenter [Abbott Thayer], who had an artist’s knowledge of color values, took his brushes and darkened the back of one and painted its under surface a whitish color. That particular duck then escaped notice at a little distance, and was absolutely invisible at about twelve feet, while the other one was very plain. Thayer carried out other experiments with imitation insects to show how Mother Nature gets her camouflage effects.