Announcing a Modernized Classic

by Dan Margulis on February 5, 2020

This is a pre-announcement of a book that is about to come on the market. You can’t order it for a few days yet, but you need to be on the lookout for the offer, because it’s going to be time-limited. After that, it will be available only on Amazon, which sometimes runs out of stock temporarily when a book is popular. This one appears to be.

What is it? Merely the finest practical work on color ever written. For once, I am not being egotistical. Rather, it is the considered judgment of history—nearly two hundred years of it.

Available for order soon!

Available for order soon!


The French chemist M.E. Chevreul has regularly appeared in my previous books. In CC2E, I appointed him an honorary beta reader, and quoted him at length fourteen times, mostly in dialogs with other beta readers. His ideas sounded very modern, which is pretty good for words written in 1839.

His classic book on color strongly influenced the development of Impressionist and subsequent painting, but he introduced philosophies that are valid for all the visual arts. So it offers sections not just on how to use color in painting, but in tapestries, carpets, furniture, mosaics, churches, museums, apartments, formal gardens, theaters, maps, typography, framing, stained glass, women’s clothing, and even military uniforms.

Not, of course, photography, for when he wrote the daguerrotype was just being perfected. Nor web design. Instead, he describes problems we rarely encounter today, and then offers proposed solutions. This is a most useful exercise. If you aren’t able to predict what colors are most useful in, say, decorating an apartment that has no electric lighting, well, you should be.

Chevreul got into color in his 40s, by royal command. The king was dissatisfied with results from the Gobelins tapestry works, and blamed them on poor dyes. He hired our author, who was arguably the leading scientist in France at the time, to straighten things out. Chevreul did his testing and found out that certain dyes indeed were weak, but that the black, a target of criticism, was fine. When parts of a fabric dyed with that black, however, lay next to other parts that were dyed dark blue or purple, the black seemed weak and reddish. Chevreul called this misperception simultaneous contrast. Others had hinted at the effect before, but Chevreul defined it, as well as what he thought its ramifications were.

The resulting book got worldwide acclamation but there is doubt as to how many people actually read it. Chevreul, though a great scientist and an incisive observer of the arts, was a terrible writer. Furthermore, when the book made it into English 15 years later, it got a dullard of a translator who knew nothing about color. I publish a contemporary (1855) review from a scholarly journal, which stressed the importance of the book, but added, “We cannot forbear stating that justice is not done to Chevreul in the present translation. It is awkward, inelegant, often barbarous in style, and sometimes quite unintelligible.”

Yet this barbarous translation is the only full one we’ve had to deal with for the last 175 years, and the only one available for purchase (heavily abridged, yet) until next week or so. The best that can be said is that its title: The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors, is a bit more descriptive than Chevreul’s De la Loi du Contraste Simultané des Couleurs. My new version, for better or worse, restores the original title: On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors.

I do not bill it, however, as a translation. Today books like his go through copy editing first, but his didn’t, and there are many stylistic faults and unclear sentences. I have acted as an editor to correct these deficiencies. Still, the text is recognizably his: the only stuff deleted is incontestably irrelevant today.

But his words comprise only two-thirds of the text. The rest is my commentary, needed to update what he was saying for modern needs or to point out areas where time has called his teachings into question. And naturally I have a lot of comments about the meaning for photography, although much of the time I discuss paintings, and how their lessons impact photos today.

In doing this, I revert to my customary method of showing alternate versions of images. This time, though, many of the images are paintings. I show how, Renoir, say, chose a certain color clothing for a subject, and what would have happened if he had chosen something else. And I point out the obvious, that it many photographs it is permissible to change color of clothing, too, and I offer examples of when it makes sense.

Most of these comparisons show that the famous painter made the right choice, but not always. In a book like this, color graphics are crucial. Chevreul knew this, of course, and tried desperately to get them included. Those few he got in were primitive by our standards and cost a fortune, given the limitations of 1830s technology. I’ve added quite a collection, as follows (note: when there are, say, four variants of a given image, it counts as one image, not four)

Art that itself demonstrates a point about color usage:
Paintings: 40
Photographs: 42
Corporate Logos: 2
Weavings (tapestry, furniture covering): 4
Digital paintings: 2
Posters: 3
Stained glass: 2
Wallpaper: 2
Map: 1

Other artwork:
Artificial graphics to show points about human vision: 28
Photos, paintings, and linework used as illustrations only (no point being made about their own use of color): 41

To further aid in your decision of whether to get this book when it becomes available, which is soon (see details below) here are some interesting pop-up links:
*The book’s front and back cover
*The Synopsis of Contents
*My Foreword
And two more, in response to those wanting more details on which artists were getting coverage:
*Dramatis personae: as Chevreul and I are both big name-droppers, this gives biographical information on the 172 artists, scientists, engineers, politicians, etc. who populate the pages, with an explanation of where they are discussed.
*Born at a time when the human life expectancy was about 40, Chevreul lived almost to 103. He therefore was alive before the French Revolution, and after the births of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. I offer a timeline of his lifetime with respect to politics, science, culture, and his amazing career.
*And, if you want to download a zipped package of all five of the above, here it is.

As of this moment you can’t buy this book, but if you want it you need to watch this space over the last few days. We intend to offer a special one-week sale before the books get shipped to Amazon. The reason: we had no clue as to how well this book would do. My normal readership can’t be expected to have much interest in a book in which the word Photoshop never appears. On the other hand, my previous books require a certain computer proficiency, whereas this one is accessible to anyone who likes color, whether they know how to pick up a mouse or not.

So we launched a trial balloon. I announced the book in my discussion group a few weeks ago and offered to take orders for immediate shipment from the printer as soon as the books were bound. This resulted in more than five times as many orders as we anticipated, many for multiple copies. The rest of the books are now on their way across the country. Once they reach our Atlanta warehouse, we’ll announce the availability of a one-time sale here.

Anyhow, here’s hoping you find the project as interesting as I did. Keep your eyes open for the sales announcement!

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