The Science of Color

Above:  Paintings, blue-green May 16, 2018; red-orange April 21, 2017

The New Science of Color (1915) by Beatrice Irwin

“The rapidly increasing methods of immaterial communication [such as wireless telegraphy] reasonably support a supposition that we stand at the inception of a telepathic era in the history of the race. By the noonday of this telepathic era, color will be a recognized force, just as much as electricity and sound are now; it will be used for healing of body and development of mind; it will be found to possess the same philosophical and ethical value as music, and may possibly become our medium of personal communication.” Beatrice Irwin

Orange circle, surrounding triangle with colorsThe New Science of Color is a quirky book, which had quite an impact in its day, on art and interior design. Irwin’s ideas influenced abstract and modernist artists, in particular Georgia O’Keeffe. Irwin devised a “color triangle” which divided colors into “physical, mental, and spiritual” categories. She claimed that color has always one of three effects upon us–sedative, recuperative, or stimulant; and to reap those benefits, a person should select whichever colors whose “potency” they desired and surround them self with the color actually, or if this was impossible, mentally.

Irwin, a trained stage actress, was also an entrepreneur. She patented a line of electric lamps with colored shades (The “Irwin Color Filter System”). Her beliefs in the spiritual potentials of color were derived from her Baha’i faith.


I recorded a chapter from The New Science of Color for the LibriVox 13th Anniversary Collection entitled “The Color Development of Thirteen Countries,” in which Irwin talks about the “native palette” of countries she had visited.  Her comments about Japan are of particular interest.  You can access a print copy of The New Science of Color here.

Some of Irwin’s ideas are a bit far out, but I understood her assertion that a person could desire the “potency” of a color (Irwin’s word), in a “recuperative” sense (again, Irwin’s term).  I will often choose particular tubes of paint without any clear idea of what I want to paint, only that I intuitively feel the need to express those colors.  What results are mood paintings, without doubt.  The CD cover which I designed for the 13th Anniversary Collection is also a vivid display of my color sense.


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