Books are all so unique. This inalienable fact never ceases to impress and surprise me. Even books from a run of production of thousands of copies, after a few decades, all develop their own personalities. Perhaps because I am a conservator in private practice, or perhaps because it is just in my stubborn nature, I look at every repair project as a complete individual. In some ways I occupy a netherworld between conservation and restoration: all of my repairs must be sound functionally, but I do dip into making a book look good, perhaps more than a strict conservator would. Most of my clients are private collectors, and I just have this notion that if a book looks good, its caretakers will be more friendly to it. So even though I don’t have any background in studio art, I’ve tried to integrate artistic techniques into my work. One of these techniques I’ve had to teach myself is about color. There are technical manuals about color, and there are intuitive ways one can match color, and I’ve explored a little of both. Sometimes this takes a special eye. One of my students from my recent class in Alaska is a painter. Her color mixing palette blew my mind!
Color matching for book repair takes more than just a good understanding of color. You need to be able to see the color of the book for what it really is, and more often than not, that color is brown. Over the years since I’ve been doing cloth rebacks, I’ve done a lot of color mixing, and one thing I can say about the process with certainty is that all books turn brown over time. Some get dirty, some fade, but whatever the cause, it seems I go through a stunning amount of raw umber acrylic. I describe this color to my students as the color of dirt. The thing about color matching, though, is I find I still have a strong tendency to see the color of an old book as what it once was. So I start out by picking blues, or reds, or greens… Time and time again I find that the actual match is only about ten percent of that color, whatever it may be, and 90 percent brown. One might take this as a cause for disappointment or dismay to find that the book is now discolored, as one might say. Or perhaps I should try not to be so optimistic! Toss out those rose colored glasses… here is a shot of some color matching tests I did for a leather book recently. I find that leather books are the hardest to match, since I don’t have that initial starting point of a color such as red, blue, or what have you. And quite often, the cover and spine of a leather book will contain all of the colors in the sample piece below! So then it becomes a matter of choosing the best color for the base, then stippling on additional colors. I try not to let things like this set the work back too much timewise, but with experience, they can be accomplished somewhat more efficiently.
In any case, I sort of enjoy the reminder that the book is more brown than I perceive it to be. I like the fact that I initially see it as it once was, but I also enjoy matching the color to acknowledge what it is right now. One of many life lessons learned through bookbinding… Contemplating the future of the repair as I always do, I have to acknowledge as well that the new acrylics will not likely age at the same rate as the book’s original dye. Will they both turn more brown together, I wonder?
One last thing! I was interviewed by Robert Hannon when I visited Alaska last June to teach there. He produces an excellent and insightful radio program called Northern Soundings. If you listen to podcasts, he posts his shows in podcast form, and the interview with me is here. Give it a listen, and enjoy all his other programs, too! I forgot to mention in my last post about some of the cool gifts my students gave me. Thank you!
One response to “Every Color of the Rainbow, As Long As It’s Brown”
Beautiful birch bark, would love to see that in a binding!