Camouflage is about making things disappear. How things appear, and disappear, is the game of the artist so it isn't surprising that it was an artist who invented the camouflage that military forces use to disguise soldiers and equipment. Abbott Thayer was born in 1849 in Boston but spent much of his childhood in rural New Hampshire. At 18 he studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes with Leon Gerome. In addition to being a painter, he was also a naturalist who took a keen interest in how color and patterning in nature disguised the contour of animals, insects, and plants. He wrote an important book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern (1909) and carried on a correspondence with then President, Theodore Roosevelt, who took issue with many of Thayer's assertions.

In this watercolor of Thayer's, a Copperhead snake is concealed against its background by means of shapes and colors that visually link with elements in the surrounding space, interrupting the continuity of the snake's contour. The ability to distinguish "figure" from "ground," a key mechanism of perception, is defeated by nature's manipulation of visual elements.

Here are some early photographs showing military experiments with Thayer's theories:

One of Roosevelt's bones of contention with Thayer was the seeming contradiction presented by the strident coloration in certain animals such as pink flamingos. Thayer's arguments were based on his observation that at certain times of day, particularly sunset and sunrise when the Flamingos' mating or feeding were active, their color would conceal them against the pink skies of their habitat.

The main principle of camouflage is to break down the object's contrast with its surroundings by relating it visually to its context. Who but an artist, who makes his life out of the phenomena of vision, would notice the many subtle ways that nature achieves this magic trick?

So, what does camouflage have to do with painting? Anyone who attempts to paint a slice of "nature" from observation will soon notice the peculiar way that the visible edges of objects can break down and become lost in their surrounding environment. The lighted planes of a bottle may "connect" with a similar adjacent area of the background, breaking the continuity of the outline and creating a new, aggregate shape. A dark shadow plane of an object may dissolve into a larger shape of related tones. In the photo below, on the right side of the still-life the dark bottles and pitcher visually link to their dark surroundings and lose their edges. The dark shoe atop the terra cotta pot is clearly silhouetted dark against light, except where the toe penetrates the shadow of the pitcher.

Painting from observation is a meditation on appearances, and appearances are provisional, not absolute. These composite color shapes, the progeny of light, are ephemeral, unique, and without precedent. They are formed out of relationships, not things. We carry no stored memory of these  shapes, no symbol for representing them, no name to call them. They exist in the moment's looking and disappear again when the light has changed. Learning to paint from observation we begin to notice such phenomena and, dare I say it, "imitate" these elisions, or joinings of one thing to another in the painting. The payoff for the painter is that elusive quality, Light.

Although Abbott Thayer is better known for his portraits and his paintings of angels, for which his children posed, the landscapes that he painted around Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, where he lived, are among Thayer's most stirring and evocative works. Like their ancestors, the paintings of the Hudson River school, Thayer's paintings embody that sense of awe at the raw American landscape, but there is a feeling of the new century, a new energy that expresses itself in the vigorous brushwork and palette knife work. In these works you can sense the same rapt attention of Abbott Thayer, the Painter, and Abbott Thayer, the Naturalist. Both depend on visual attention to the particular ways in which form and space reveal, and conceal, themselves.

Links to Abbott Thayer's work:
Abbott Handerson Thayer

Monadnock Art: Friends of the Dublin Art Colony


  1. Wonderful post. The watercolor of the snake is amazing, and very beautiful as well.


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