Colors from Nature: Who Inspires Whom?

I discovered an interesting book on Facebook this week: A Bird’s Guide to Complementary Colors by BG Lloyd. It’s being published out of Littleton, Colorado and is currently in pre-ordering. The purpose of the book is to derive color palettes directly from images of birds that can then be used to assist artists and designers in their own work. The Publishizer page for the book is quite interesting and can be found here.

Mandarin duck floating on water reflecting red light.
The mandarin duck, one of the species featured in the book. There are certainly plenty of colors to choose from.

What interests me about the author’s philosophy is his emphasis on the evolution of birds to display elaborate colors for mating purpose, but also on the intellectual process of humans selecting colors. This work demonstrates the idea that the color combinations we find beautiful and harmonious may not have a human origin but may instead be fuelled by thousands of years of observing the beauty of nature. After all, we have been deriving pigments from natural sources for millennia. The first bright blue pigment was derived from ultramarine stones, and the earliest reds and purples were from the juice of berries. Even today a frequent red pigment for cosmetics is the ground carapaces of certain scale insects, though this is going out of fashion with the rise of vegan alternatives.

So perhaps more than just the physical materials to create the colors, we have also gathered our inspiration for how to pair colors together from our natural world. In its way, the scientific process of observation of natural phenomena has melded with the aesthetic process of assigning color schemes for art.

On the other side of the coin is the question of whether there are universal, nature-bound rules for which colors work together and which colors do not. After all, the color wheel with its primary, secondary, analogous, and complementary colors may be a human invention, but it is based off of logical assessments of the ways in which physical pigments behave. Modern color wheels for digital art are perhaps even more rigorously developed, as they tend to be based in numbers and data as much as aesthetics.

The invention of the color wheel was an empirical process of observation, so perhaps it’s not so much a matter of humans taking inspiration from nature as it is discovering the rules of color by their own means. If these rules are universal based on the scientific properties of color, then natural selection will have solved the problem for birds, giving us the gorgeous plumage we see today.

A color wheel featuring the three primary and three secondary colors.
A color wheel.: Arbitrary human invention? Or a record of pre-existing natural laws?

With his book, BG Lloyd may have primarily intended to provide some quick answers for people looking for color palettes inspired by nature. And he succeeds, the book is quite interesting. But as is often the case, the existence of work like this offers as many questions as answers.

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