Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) was not a scientist. He was a 19th-century artist who was always intensely interested in human vision and in the coloration of animals. He may have thought of himself as a scientist (as one who at times was more capable than those who claimed to be scientists), but at best he was a naturalist. He had unlimited energy and curiosity, but he did not conduct what we would regard as “empirical” experiments. Instead, whenever he made a discovery, he confirmed his findings by showing them to other people, for the purpose of which he invented the most fascinating demonstrations. 

In the 1890s, for example, he discovered what he claimed to be an irrefutable law of nature, an aspect of animal coloration called countershading, or, as it is also known, “Thayer’s law.” Simply, he discovered that there is a reason why so many animals (and especially those that are active in daylight) have “white undersides.” He said that this evolved because it functions as “negative shading”: It counteracts or cancels out the shading that comes from the overhead sun, with the result that a motionless animal looks flat and insubstantial, instead of like a solid “thing.”

To “prove” this, he came up with various ways of showing it to other people. One of these involved the use of hand-carved wooden duck decoys that he mounted on wire and positioned in natural settings. There are surviving photos of this. One of them (reproduced above right) purports to show a pair of decoys, one of which (on the left side of the photo) has been evenly colored with the same dirt that is on the ground. It has not been countershaded, and can be clearly and easily seen. In the right half of the photo, there is supposedly a second decoy, which is all but invisible, except for a faint indication of wire, because Thayer has expertly countershaded it (it is lighter on its underside, then grows darker toward the top). This photographic record of this is amazing, but it apparently does not begin to compare with eyewitness reports by Thayer’s contemporaries (leading scientists among them) to whom he showed not only photographs but also countershaded shapes. 

[Interestingly, if no duck decoys were on hand, Thayer used raw sweet potatoes to demonstrate countershading. He also countershaded a small replica of the Venus de Milo which he displayed in the Dublin NH town hall, rigged with special lights by which school children could make the statue appear and disappear.]

Encouraged by the acceptance of countershading by scientists (it is standard textbook stuff today), Thayer went on to make other, more radical assertions, and devise ways of demonstrating them. He was especially interested in high difference or disruptive camouflage (at times he even used the word “dazzle”). In part because of what he’d learned from the study of countershading, he concluded that evenly-colored uniforms (such as khaki or “dust-colored” outfits), without countershading, were ineffective camouflage. 

Thus, soon after World War I began (the US did not declare war until later), Thayer appealed to the British army to abandon its khaki field service uniform and adopt a disruptive pattern instead. As a prototype (see photo below left), he attached contrasting scraps of cloth (including his wife’s stockings) to a weather beaten jacket. [It is believed to have been William James’ Norfolk hunting jacket, given to Thayer when the philosopher died in 1910 (James’s sons, Alex and William, had been Thayer’s painting students)].


Thayer’s advocacy of disruption was probably also contributive to World War I ship camouflage, although his son later denied it, and Norman Wilkinson (the British proponent of “dazzle painting”) also insisted that Thayer’s writings had not been the source of his own proposals for ship camouflage. By 1917, WWI ship camoufleurs had largely abandoned their earlier goal of making a ship invisible, and had turned instead to an emphasis on how to make it hard to hit. To make something invisible nearly always requires adjustments between a figure and its background. But in dazzle ship camouflage, it was assumed that the background could not be anticipated in a widely variant ocean setting, much less controlled, so that the camoufleur’s primary task became that of distorting, confusing, disrupting the shape and the course of the figure alone.

Coincident Disruption
At an early point in his investigations, Thayer became interested in what British zoologist Hugh B. Cott would later call coincident disruption. In essence, it simply refers to camouflage in which blending and disruption occur concurrently. In other words, the figure is not only broken apart, but some of its fragmented portions blend in with the background. There may be no better example of that than an African serpent called the Gabon Viper (Bitis gabonica), as shown on the right.

In the Thayers’ book, some of their most memorable illustrations are of coincident disruption. Two of these are especially notable: One is a three-stage illustration of the camouflage of a copperhead snake. It is commonly viewed in three stages (as shown on the left) because it consists of two pages. On one page is an elaborate painting of the camouflaged snake (partly famous because it is Thayer student Rockwell Kent’s first published illustration) in a setting of dead leaves on a forest floor. The second page is an overlay, from which the silhouette of the snake has been cut out. In the third stage, when the cut-out silhouette is placed on top of the painting, the snake can now be easily seen. Voila! 

The other, by the book’s author Gerald H. Thayer, is a painting that purports to show a Ruffled Grouse, completely motionless, in a forest setting. It is a masterful achievement, in part because it “cheats” so well, relying on compositional devices that have been used throughout human history by artists, magicians and pickpockets—and camoufleurs—to direct (and misdirect) the eye.

Background picturing
At some early point in his research (he was already talking about it when he published his first paper in 1896), Thayer decided that while, in and of itself, coincident disruption was an effective camouflage strategy, it is even more effective when the pattern of disruption on the animal is similar to patterns found in its typical natural surrounding. Thayer referred to this, unfortunately, as background picturing. The term is confusing because he surely did not mean a literal picture, but instead, as his son later put it, an abstract “picture-pattern.” And that, in the words of art historian Ross Anderson (a Thayer biographer), consists of "a generalization or distillation of the features of those physical settings in which the animal commonly was found, a surface that would be absorbed into a greater variety of specific backdrops." 

To demonstrate background picturing, he devised a pair of photographs (as shown at left) of an indigenous warrior, disrupted by “war paint,” juxtaposed with a cut-out silhouette of the same figure, which itself is disrupted by branches and twigs. He also did the same with ducks (see photo at right), skunks and other creatures.

The most ingenious of these demonstrations are those shown here in which he built a special frame for each painting. Shown above, for example, are two views of the same set-up. On the left (with the frame-door closed), the viewer sees two nearly identical paintings identical birds. They are Hooded Warblers, well-known as examples of disruptive coloration. However, as seen in the view to the right of that one, when the frame-door is opened it becomes apparent that only one of the bird figures is painted on the white background. The other is visually embedded in a painting of a “sunlit foliage” surrounding. Like the copperhead snake shown earlier, this bird becomes apparent because a cut-out silhouetter of it has been carved into the frame-door. Thayer made other examples of this, some of which made use of frames and template silhouettes (see above right), while others simply juxtaposed two renderings of the same figure, one with a plain background and one with the figure in situ, in a complex natural setting (as shown at right).

Embedded figures
Thayer went one step further with this (circa 1909) when he devised a clever, easy way for individuals (such as soldiers) to design their own camouflage, using cut-out silhouettes. Whatever the situation, said Thayer, a person "has only to cut out a stencil of the soldier, ship, cannon or whatever figure he wishes to conceal, and look through this stencil from the viewpoint under consideration, to learn just what costume from that viewpoint would most tend to conceal this figure." This effect, which is of course comparable to the aforementioned war-painted warrior technique, is known in perceptual psychology as an embedded figure or (sometimes) camouflaged figures.

In pre-computer days, one could make arbitrary compositions in art by overlapping "systems" on layers of tracing paper, viewed on a light table. Today, it is ever so easy to do the same thing (and much more) by using the "layers" function in software such as Adobe Photoshop. Looking back, this could have been useful as a way to generate dazzle ship camouflage designs (see above), had all that been available in World War I.
Right Thayer's cut-out silhouette approach applied hypothetically to dazzle ship camouflage.
Below In the months following World War I, the news media and advertisers were quick to take advantage of the popularity of dazzle camouflage. The geometric patterns below are two stages in a three or four-part weekly magazine ad for Firth’s Stainless Steel in London. The initial stages of the ad are repetitions of the Cubist-like puzzle on the top, and then, in the fourth and final week, the answer to the puzzle is shown in the lower panel.  
Above Circa 1961, there was an embedded figure board game for families called Camouflage. Produced by Milton Bradley, it was based on an American TV game show with the same title. As shown below, players had to identify drawings of familiar objects (in this case, a clover), when embedded in a complex maze of nonsensical shapes (using acetate overlays). So where is Waldo?
abbott thayer’s 
camouflage demonstrations
Countershading, disruption and background picturing

an essay by Roy R. Behrens
copyright © 2009
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Above At the very top is a photo of a mouse, with its characteristic white undersides, which Thayer attributed to countershading. Below that is a sequence of four circles, based on a diagram devised by Thayer. The first circle represents a flat expanse, such as a simple outlined shape, drawn on a sheet of paper. The second shows the effect of shading, as has been used for centuries by artists, to create the illusion of volume and solidity. The third, which is the inverse (or negative shading) represents countershading, or the “white undersides of animals.” And the fourth is the flat expanse of gray that comes from the cancellation of shading by countershading. The photo beneath that series is a Thayer demonstration of countershading, in which two wooden ducks are poised side by side, one of which (on the left) has not been countershaded, while the other (on the right, and all but invisible) has been carefully countershaded. Right Some of the most astonishing examples of countershading in nature are in the coloration of moth larva, as seen in these two paintings of a Luna Moth caterpillar. As seen in the near right image, the caterpillar’s countershading is upsidedown—it is lightest on its upper surface and darkest on its underside, making it more conspicuous in an upright position. However (as shown in the far right image) it hangs upsidedown while feeding, and is thus protected by its countershading. Both these paintings (by Louis A. Fuertes (left) and Gerald H. Thayer (right)) were first published in 1909 in the Thayers’ book on Concealing Coloration in Animals. Above These photographs (also from the Thayers’ book) represent two views of the same wooden duck decoy, which in both cases has been countershaded and painted with a texture that matches the background. The difference is that the decoy in the top photo has been lighted from the bottom, making it more conspicuous; while that in the lower photo has been lighted from the top, as would most likely be the case in a natural setting.
Above These are two of the drawings for US Patent No. 715,013, filed in 1910 by Abbott H. Thayer and Gerome Brush (son of artist George de Forest Brush), in which a ship is countershaded in a manner not dissimilar from the coloration of a seagull.
Above Models of three different kinds of camouflage (from left to right): blending or background matching (without countershading, hence its conspicuousness); disruption or dazzle, in which a figure breaks apart; and coincident disruption or background picturing), which makes use of both blending and dazzle.
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Above Abbott H. Thayer’s inspiring, albeit controversial, book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern: Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Discoveries (New York: Macmillan, 1909). The author of record was the artist’s son, Gerald H. Thayer. Above British artist Bruce Bairnsfather’s humorous rendition of a WWI soldier in a disruptively patterned field service uniform. 

Right (near) Two photos by the Thayers, published by them in 1918 in an article on military applications of camouflage. It is Abbott Thayer himself in the photo on the left, dressed in his infamous hunting jacket, while beside that he is in a tree. The striped figure in the third photo on the right is testing a WWI American sniper suit.
In October 2008, a new documentary film on the life of Abbott H. Thayer (sometimes called the “father of camouflage”) premiered at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Titled INVISIBLE: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage, it can now be purchased online for about $20. more
Above Photo of a Gabon Viper in the context of a forest floor. Public domain photo. 

Below Gerald H. Thayer’s illustration of coincident disruption in a Ruffled Grouse, as first published in his Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom (1909), in the author’s collection. The original painting, titled Male Ruffled Grouse in the Forest, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Above Hypothetical dazzle scheme made by superimposing an embedded figure diagram. Image © Roy R. Behrens.
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