Wednesday, May 6, 2020

To see or not? The compleat disguise of the nightjar

Above Scissor-tailed Nightjar (referred to in the article as the "goatsucker"). Public domain.


Below is most (not all) of the text from a magazine article that was published during World War I. An opening section, which is a disturbing and not-funny joke about the “West Indian negro” (but referred to by a slanderous name), has been omitted. Encountering such offensive content is standard fare when searching vintage published texts.

The author, Stephen Haweis (1878-1969), was a British artist and photographer whose family (described as “socially prominent”) lived in Cheyne Walk in London, in a house that had been previously owned by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. While living in Paris, he was a student of Alphonse Mucha, and, as a photographer, documented the sculptural work of Auguste Rodin. He was also the sometime husband of British poet Mina Loy. After losing much of his family’s wealth in the 1929 stock market crash, he moved to the West Indies, where (according to a biographical note in the finding aid for his papers at Columbia University) “he studied and painted tropical fish [and] wrote for local newspapers…”

Stephen Haweis, "To See or Not To See? A Question that Camouflage, Color and Cubism Are Solving in the War" in Vanity Fair, April 1918, pp. 42ff—

… It was recently announced in the newspapers that ingenious camouflage men were required by the Chief of Engineers at Washington. Property men, photographers, sheet metal workers, scene and sign painters, were specified among a host of others, but there was no notice or mention of color experts, or men whose lives are devoted to the observation of Nature.

A really ingenious camouflage man ought to be able to do quite well without the simple wiles of the stage decorator, but it seems odd that the color men should be overlooked by such an important branch of the Army service as the camouflage department. Perhaps, at this moment, the most useless professions would seem to be those of the picture painter and the naturalist, but in these two branches of study are the real master camouflagers. The painter, because he devotes his life to the science of color, and the collecting naturalist because he could not possibly find the objects of his search were he not trained to notice the slightest variations of color and form, in forest and plain.

The naturalist can see the screech owl on the stump of an old tree, and can find the praying mantis upon a bush, which the rest of humanity will pass unnoticed; indeed a tyro may stare vacantly at a land-crab in a mangrove swamp for several minutes after its exact position has been indicated to him. I have seen a man kneel down upon the sand with his nose less than three feet from the young of the goatsucker, yet he could not see it, because to him sand and fluff were exactly alike.

We are not trained to accurate observation unless our life interest depends upon it. But who should be able to detect a hidden gun emplacement, or a sniper, so well as a painter or a naturalist? They know when a boulder has been recently moved by the direction of the lichen growths on it. They suspect an unusual shape of a branch in a mass of foliage. They are not easily deceived by cut trees that are supposed to be growing.

Biography of Mina Loy

The army authorities should take into consideration that there are several breeds of artists. The popular portrait painter might be dead weight in the camouflage department, and the old fashioned landscape man might be well supplanted by the scene-painter; but the impressionist, perhaps even the post-impressionist or the cubist, should be of the utmost value to them because they look at nature scientifically and analytically. They have no preconceived ideas of what a picture should be, they are concerned with what nature really is, however unlikely it may seem to the eye. They do not attempt to paint details, but effects of light upon scenes or objects which in themselves have no particular interest for them.

They are aware that the color of the thing at any given moment is incompletely interpreted by that color detached from its encircling environment of light, air, and movement. To attain this, the impressionist analyzes what he sees and devises a means of expressing the result of his analysis.

He does it as a rule by juxtaposing brilliant colors in spots and blotches so that the result expresses the colors, and suggests the details of his subjects properly in their relative values,—the keynote of successful camouflage.

Most people think that an object painted blue would be inconspicuous against a blue sky. Blue sky, however, is not blue paint, a paint which appears to darken with distance more rapidly than any other color,—so that a blue airplane would show up almost like a black spot in the sky.

Orange, on the other hand, (the complementary of blue), will disappear remarkably quickly, a pale vivid yellow would probably be found to be the best airplane color for a blue sky. Pink will disappear rapidly against white skies, while anyone who has seen a spot of vermilion on gray drawing paper, should realize that a vermilion airplane against a thunder cloud if visible at all, would be an impossible target, as the two colors produce a vibration in the eye that is almost intolerable. I do not doubt that artists could devise a far better color for uniforms than the favorite grays and browns dear to the military heart today.

Applied to battleships, the result of the prevalent gray color scheme is well nigh pathetic, for, upon the horizon, they appear perfectly well defined to the enemy marksman. He would have considerably more trouble if the color were a bright mauve. If there were enough red in the mauve, these ships, theoretically, should not be visible on the greens and grays of the ocean.

Already there are some who regret the old white battleships, which at least reflected the water. But white is now said to be a bad color. But there are different kinds of white; blue-white, green-white, yellow-white—each of which has its own characteristics and uses. Probably all white holds or refracts too much light to be very inconspicuous, except in a blaze of light.

The chief essential in camouflage is that the same color should not be employed all over anything. Spots have been used by the painters to simulate movement in picture painting. They will be found—on a large scale—to be right in principle for harmonizing an object with the continual movement of its surroundings.

But, whatever colors are employed the impressionist has long known that stars and stripes are the right principle—and I think we shall see that they will be placed, in Europe, where they will do a lot of good.