A Shillito Student Portfolio from the Mid-1940’s

11.16 A Shillito Student Portfolio from the Mid-1940’s

This is a recording of a presentation co-authored with Eva Fay, and given at AIC2022 Sensing Colour, the virtual Midterm Meeting of the International Colour Assocaiation held in Toronto on June 13-16, 2022.

[00:00] We illustrate and describe a remarkable portfolio of colour exercises and notes produced for the Design diploma course at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School, Sydney) by a student named Helen Jean Burgess in the mid-1940’s. The portfolio is important as an early record of the colour curriculum of Phyllis Shillito, who was a major influence on the teaching of colour theory and application in Australia, both directly from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, and indirectly through her former students, including among others my co-author Eva Fay, who went on to become prominent as educators in the design disciplines and the fine arts.

[00:44] The Burgess portfolio comprises a woven fabric cover and 36 loose boards in three sections, "Shillito Theory" (with 13 boards), "Ostwald Theory" (with 12 boards) and "Munsell Theory" (with 11 boards). Thirty of these boards feature renderings in gouache, some of which required careful mixing in gouache of dozens of colour chips. The portfolio also includes six annotated transparent overlays, three pen and ink Munsell and Ostwald diagrams, and 44 part-sheets or full sheets of typed text attached to the reverse sides of 24 of the boards. I’ve examined these sheets and found that almost in their entirety they closely paraphrase or copy verbatim passages from a total of just seven texts. These texts comprise Henry Barrett Carpenter's Suggestions for the Study of Colour (first published in 1915, and revised in 1923 and 1932), Maitland Graves' The Art of Color and Design (from 1941) and five texts on the Munsell and Ostwald systems and theories of colour harmony.

[01:56] The notes in the "Shillito Theory" section are all closely based on Carpenter's Suggestions for the Study of Colour, apart from two sections using Shillito's own hue scale of 15 hues. The plates in this section illustrate a “Value Scale”, “Simple Harmonies”, “Contrasts, “Tints”, and “Discords”, and two “colour wheel” diagrams designed by Shillito. The “Shillito Wheel” illustrates Shillito’s distinctive 15-step palette-based hue scale. On this plate the fifteen hues comprise six so-called “primary colours”, each corresponding to a specified pigment, plus three “secondary” and six “subsecondary” colours (called “Sub-Primary” colours in the facing text sheet), all physically mixed from facing pairs of the six “primary colour” paints. Shillito would later outline the rationale for this double-primary arrangement in her 1959 article “Colour Tuning”. Double-primary palettes like this are used as a practical remedy for the limited colour gamut obtainable from any set of just three “primary” red, yellow and blue paints, and have become very widely used for this purpose by painters in recent decades, but very few examples from before the mid-1960s are known to us apart from those by Shillito students. A rare exception is a diagram of six primary colours and three secondary colours illustrated by Pellew  in 1918. The 15-step hue scale is a fixture of Shillito student portfolios through to the late 70’s, when it was used as the basis for several additional diagrams that my co-author Eva Fay has illustrated in her book on the Shillito Design School. The arrangement could well have inspired later instances of “double-primary” palettes, but we have no direct evidence to support this. The lower part of the facing text page repeats the colours of the Shillito wheel, while the upper part is a table from Carpenter labelled “Rood’s Table of the Natural Order of Colours”. The table from Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics of 1879 that seems to be the basis of Carpenter’s concept of the natural order of colours is shown lower right.

[04:15] The “Tertiary Wheel” is another original Shillito design lacking clear antecedents, and was another fixture of Shillito student portfolios through to the end of her teaching career. Shillito would also later describe this diagram in her 1959 article. The text page facing the “Tertiary Wheel” exercise is closely paraphrased from a passage in Carpenterr, as are most passages on the remaining text sheets from the “Shillito Theory” section. I can only show these briefly now, but as documentation we’ve provided a 96-page pdf of full-page images of all of the Burgess plates and text pages, annotated with the sources I’ve identified for each page, including hyperlinks to the specific pages of Carpenter’s text and some other sources available on archive.org. The term “discord” has been used in colour theory with a variety of meanings, but in the Burgess portfolio it’s used in the specific sense introduced by Carpenter, for colour combinations in which the relative values of two or more hues are opposite to what Carpenter calls their “natural order”. An example would be a yellow and an orange in which the yellow was darker rather than lighter than the orange.

[05:48] The typed notes in the “Ostwald Theory” section include five pages I traced to Judson’s A Handbook of Colour from 1935, six pages from Ostwald’s Colour Science from 1931, and eighteen pages of excerpts from J. Scott Taylor’s A Simple Explanation of the Ostwald Colour System from 1935. Some of the illustrations can also be traced to Ostwald’s Colour Science, but a couple of the very simple Ostwald diagrams could be derived from a number of secondary sources. The four elaborate gouache plates with overlays in this section appear to derive from Ostwald’s colour atlas Der Farbkörper from 1919.

[06:36] I eventually traced these typed notes in the “Munsell Theory” section to an article on Color Organization from the 1938 edition of the journal Printing Art, and these much more easily to Cleland’s A Practical Description of the Munsell Color System from 1921, and Graves’ The Art of Color and Design. These images on plates 27 to 30 seem to derive from the text introduction to the Munsell Book of Color from 1929, and probably from Cleland. However the two double-hue-page Munsell plates do not match any editions of the Munsell Atlas or Book of Color known to us, but one matches a Munsell chart by the Allcolor Company of New York that I found illustrated in an article on colour science in Life magazine from 1944.

[07:40] The “Munsell Theory” section also includes gouache renderings of three pages from Graves' The Art of Color and Design which had been published just a few years earlier in 1941. Plate 33 illustrates Graves' concepts of "value keys" ("High Minor", "Low Major" etc.) and Plates 34-35 illustrate his concept of "value chords". Graves devised his concepts of value keys and chords as a means of systematically classifying tonal distributions in compositions, and these concepts still find application today in both fine art and design. Exercises rendering Graves’ "value key" and "value chord" diagrams and applying these concepts to design exercises were retained throughout Shillito’s teaching career, including the example at upper right by Jocelyn Maughan OAM from near the end of Shillito’s time at East Sydney Technical College, and the example at lower right done by my co-author Eva Fay as a student at the Shillito Design School in the late 1970’s. Eva recalls that Graves’ book was made available in some of the classes where his classification was discussed, and is the only colour theory textbook that she recalls being mentioned by name at the School. As we can see here the derivation from Graves could not be more clear.

[09:12] We believe that the typed sheets in the Burgess portfolio are likely to be typed-up lecture notes. Eva still possesses the notes that she copied down 30 years later in lectures at the Shillito Design School, including the complete colour theory component from Years 1 and 2 of the course. (We’d like to emphasize that Shillito’s comprehensive curriculum always spanned numerous design disciplines, in addition to the colour theory component shown here, and that Year 3 was spent applying the colour theory in practice on design projects). Eva and I have found that these lecture notes also closely paraphrase or copy verbatim many of the same sources, including Graves and especially Carpenter, and many of the lecture topics are taken nearly verbatim from Carpenter’s book. Eva’s notes also include a few additional topics including “Symbols of Colour” (verbatim from Graves), “Colour Psychology” (mainly after Faber Birren), and a handout on the Bauhaus manifesto. Surprisingly we found no passages we could attribute to the colour theory texts of Itten or Albers of the early 1960’s, which were already highly influential internationally and in Sydney,

[10:30] Like Carpenter, Shillito promoted experiential learning through practical exercises and experimentation presented in tandem with theory, rather than in advance of or even in place of theory, as in Albers. Shillito consistently emphasized the intimate grasp of colour relationships that can be obtained through many hours of meticulous practical colour manipulation in paints, whether through the intricate copies such as the Ostwald and Munsell hue pages in the 1940's, or later through more creative colour design exercises. Eva recalls Shillito in the 1970’s as a unique, motivating and inspirational educator, who knew how to guide her students to observe, experiment, discover, and search for alternative answers, to prepare them for the fine art field or the commercial world of both in 2D and 3D design.

A 96-page pdf of full-page images of all of the Burgess plates and text pages, annotated with the sources identified for each page, can be downloaded from http://www.huevaluechroma.com/Burgess.pdf, and a zip file of Eva Fay's colour theory lecture notes from the Shillito Design School is available at http://www.huevaluechroma.com/Fay.zip

This page published June 16, 2022.
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