Reading Blog 4 (History 697): Blinded by the Science and Art . . . of Color!

Like most people, I like exciting color combinations that are evocative, attractive, and interesting.  In fact, stark contrast, a key rule proffered by Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golombisky (H&G, 132), tends to be the most exciting aspect of experiencing various color schemes.  And, as Robin Williams points out, nothing makes more sense in developing contrast than to employ the “amazing color wheel” (Williams, 96).  But for me, finding the right color palette to evoke a specific time period has been challenging, particularly for the period reflecting my primary research area of interest — World War II (1941-1945).

Hagen’s and Golombisky’s brief guidelines for selecting colors that evoke historical periods are useful but, in many ways, quite obvious (H&G, 120-121). They don’t address methods for finding color schemes that evoke periods in which color imagery was not omnipresent. The low-hanging fruit always tends to be the 1950s (turquoise and pink) or the 1970s (orange and avocado — yucch!).   We know of these color schemes because, by the mid- to late-1950s, color film was emerging and slowly eclipsing black-and-white film.  But during World War II, for reasons of wartime necessity,  black and white had become the exclusive domain of film, newspapers, and magazines. Color film and photography, although extant between 1941 and 1945, required too many critical materials needed for the war effort. In fact, Life magazine, America’s preeminent photographic periodical of the day, only used black and white photographs on its covers and in its interior layouts. For the most part, color pictures appearing on magazine covers throughout the war had been “colorized” by hand, giving them a “washed-out” appearance that subdued the colors’ effects. The overall impact of this situation was to to make black, white, and various shades of gray the dominant colors of the time period.

This black-and-white dominance, however, does not bode well for a Web-site design that seeks to attract users while still evoking the time period. Some color has to come through. One of the oft-used colors that appeared throughout the period was a dull, subdued red, which sometimes founds its way into the typography of some newspaper headlines and in other print media, particularly in Army-produced print magazines like YANK and Army Talks.  Vivid, cobalt blue, which exemplified the earlier 1930s art-deco period, carried over somewhat into the war years. For those reasons, I’ve settled on combinations of blue, red, gray, black, and white to evoke the World War II period. I’m not sure how my final product will appear, but at least black, white, and gray, according to Hagen and Golombisky, fall into the category of “works-every-time-colors,” so I think I’m on firm ground (H&G, 123). I used all of these colors in my portfolio page (minus the red), and they seemed to work well.  I tried to use the “Check my Colours” app to validate the color contrast on my Portfolio page, but I could not get the app to work properly. I guess I’ll just have to go with my “gut” and the good ole color wheel. I look forward to the final result.

Steve Rusiecki

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