top of page

THE EVOLUTION OF COLOR KEY (The Blue Base/ Yellow Base Color System) BY BOB DORR

In this recount by Bob Dorr, he explains how he first discovered the Blue Base/ Yellow Base Color System. We have more of his writings to be released at a later date. This is in his own words.

I was born in New York City in 1908 -- 48 years ago. I can't help but wondering how many reading this were in grammar school when I first used this theory as a professional artist. A lot of color association has crossed my desk during that period. I am dictating this from notes and spontaneous thoughts but will try to keep it in sequence as best I can. Also, if this sounds like an "I, myself, me" story, I apologize but Color Key is me and I know of no other way to tell it. This recapitulation may seem lengthy but I believe it is done in the manner of a "when, how and why" report.

I was born in New York City in 1908, and living in Chicago at the time when in September, 1928, I enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts to major in commercial art course. I bought all the books on color theory I could get my hands on: Isaac Newton, Hermann Helm Holtz, James Maxwell, ewald Hering, albert Munsell, Wilhem Ostwald, Louis Prang - quite a collection in all. By October I discovered that the night instructors were better because 80% of them were old pros working in the field and only teaching to moonlight. So I switched to night classes. This left my days free.

I applied for and got a job as a paint boy in the theatrical poster division of Balaean & Katz, a chain of 22 theaters in Chicago. I arrived for work the following morning with all my color books and a new blue smock. I was met by the head artist who assigned me my duties. My job was to first grind, by formulation, nine poster colors on a stone mill and then to match from these standards, approximately four colors in each color bracket - reds, blues, greens, etc. This was to save time for the nine artists called "pictorial men," four lettering men, and two boys painting backgrounds. These backgrounds sometimes covered the entire length of the theatre, up to 85 feet in length. All of this was, of course, to promote the picture playing at the theatre. The picture changed every week. So later, when I knew what I was doing, it was not uncommon for me to match 75 or 100 colors a day. Every detail of my first three working days remained indelible in my mind because they were the worst days of my life. First, because I had not the remotest idea of what the hell I was doing and, second, I took the worst ribbing of my life from the nine artists about my color books and smock. However, these three days turned out to be profitable because at the end of the third day was when Color Key, as we know it today, started.

At about quitting time on the third day one of the artists, Harold Watson, came into the paint shack and said, "Hi, Bob." I was quite flattered because up until then I was known as "Hey you." He said, "The guys have been giving you a bad time but take it if you can because all of us had to serve our time as a paint monkey." He further explained that the nine pictorial men were accomplished artists, not the attic kind that wear velvet berets but two -fisted men who learned the color application and had successfully mastered this technique of poster painting. The three in New York and two in Los Angeles emanated from this studio which totalled 14 were the only ones capable of doing this kind of art work.

He said if I intended to stick it out he had two suggestions to make; first, that if I had a sister to give her the smock and get some work clothes to change into and, second, to get rid of the G.D. antiquated books - either give them away, throw them away, or put them in the basement and charge it off to a bad investment because in 30 days I would realize there was a simpler, more accurate approach to color application which made all other color theories obsolete. He added that each man had to do the equivalent of three 40" by 60" posters a day to hold their jobs so there was no time for color mistakes. He was working overtime on a poster that night and said if I wanted to stay he would show me the end result of what he was trying to tell me. I stayed and he spend 2-1/2 hours working and talking constantly, starting with a blank 40 x 60 and finishing with a poster of Billy Dove that looked more like Dove than Dove herself.

The color theme for this picture was geranium red and prussian blue. He explained the pigment relationship system as he worked - how the shadows of the skin had a touch of prussian, how they graduated to magenta, to light pink by adding white, to reach the highlights on her face. How her dress was turquoise blue but started as prussian. why her lips could only be from a geranium red base. Her black hair, with a touch of blue, was highlighted in geranium. So for 2-1/2 hours I sat in a trance mostly because of the way the color unfolded with this man's mastery of this color technique. At the end of the session I asked one question. This poster goes in a shadow box. What about the other things for the show? His answer was, and still is, important to the Color Key theory today. As long as the color theme is established the system is so locked in that the 12' heads of Billy Dove and Ben Lyon that Jim Boyer was doing on a scaffold in the back of the studio he may never see, unless he passed the theatre during the next week.

65 views0 comments


bottom of page