Full Chisel Blog

March 31, 2010

Remarks on Colour

Filed under: Finishing,Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 2:23 pm

Not to be confused with the seminal work of the same name by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the twentieth century philosopher/woodworker, a work I suggest if you are interested in an in-depth discussion.  Goethe’s Theory of Colours did the first systematic physiological analysis of colors in 1810.

Just a little thought about color and some problems that might be encountered.  Here is a classic color wheel, showing the primary colors, red, yellow and blue with the secondary colors, orange, green and purple placed accordingly.  The red is at your 10 o’clock, yellow at 2 o’clock and blue at your 6 o’clock.  Those of you without an analog clock are just out of luck. 

And if you think you know your colors, I suggest you take the Ishihara color blindness test before proceeding.  A higher percentage of men are afflicted with red/green color deficiencies and have a hard time determining colors, get a second opinion or ask a woman.

 Do you see a 5 or a 2?

Mixing adjacent primary colors gives the secondary colors and because of the arrangement of the color wheel, those colors opposite are said to be complimentary colors.  They are also colors that negate each other, in other words if a paint or finish is too red then adding green will cancel the red.  To keep varnish from yellowing with age a bit of purple can be added.

You may notice that two ‘colors’ are missing, white which is the absence of all color and black which is all of my favorite colors.  In painting and finishing we are talking about additive reflective colors [not subtractive refractive colors] and white is added to lighten the hue or tint of the color and black is added to darken the hue or tint.

Then there is chromatic intensity, how bright the color is and how much color the given sample has is color saturation.  There are opaque colors that completely cover the substrate and transparent colors that allow what is underneath to show through.

Then there is how the colors are viewed; under some artificial light like fluorescent, the colors will shift and not appear as they will in natural light.  Color corrected lighting can help ameliorate this problem, as can working in natural light.

The human eye can also be tricked as is apparent with tromp l’oeil as well as other physiological effects.  I can paint an area with dots of red paint interspersed with dots of blue paint and the overall effect to the eye will be a purple area.

Some colors will ‘set off’ other colors, by surrounding a color with another or placing it next to another color will cause different effects, that is why some colors go with other colors.  One color can be changed by putting on a transparent glaze of another color, even covering a color with a ‘clear’ glaze will alter its optical appearance.

A matt finish will look to be a lighter color than a gloss finish which will appear darker if both finishes are of the same color to begin with.  So if you have a problem with a customer not liking a color, have them take the color blindness test first.



  1. This is a really great post, and timely (for me) as well. I’m finishing a table I just built from poplar, and the “client” wanted a dark red mahogany/antique cherry look to the piece. Of course I would have liked to just use mahogany or cherry and let it age appropriately, but who has 100 years to wait. And of coure, there was a very small budget for the project. However, because of the green undertones of the poplar, I was able to get a really nice look just by using a really red dye. The green undertones of the poplar toned down the redness/purpleness of the dye and gave the finished product a nice red/brown tone that looks really nice under blonde shellac.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — April 1, 2010 @ 5:26 am

  2. While I know Wittgenstein’s work on color, I was under the impression that only his sister, Hanna Zimmermann did woodworking. Having studied at the Wiener Werkstatte she later was given the commission for the Great Ark of the Khokhme Synagogue (Dresden, destroyed 1945). Although it is quite well known that Wittgenstein often spent his evening hours in Cambridge pubs discussing his Tractatus with Edward Barnsley, so I suppose he was quite familiar with the British Arts & Crafts woodworkers.

    Comment by Wesley B. Tanner — April 1, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  3. Bob,

    Thanks and it does take a lot to satisfy a customer. Had a designer once that brought in two cherry arm chair frames and wanted them to look like dark maple and two birch side chairs he wanted to look like cherry.


    I am pretty sure Wittgenstein made furniture between Tractitus and his last book. A portrait of his sister was painted by Klimsch. Here is a favorite quote I included in the Hide Glue Book:

    “Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, nails and screws. -The function of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.”
    Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian-British philosopher


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 6, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  4. A little more philosophy. When I was at the University, majoring in linguistics and logic, in a class I wrote a paper on the Tractatus and received an A-, the minus was for committing the sin of hubris for explaining logical space on my own. He later asked for permission to use part of it for his work. My favorite however was John Austin, his How to do Things with Words, performed well. Of course Lewis Carroll was required reading.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 7, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

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