Sometimes referred to as the “father of camouflage”, Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849 – 1921) was an American painter of portraits, figures, animals and landscapes, and a naturalist. During the last third of his life, he worked together with his son on a major book about protective coloration in nature, titled 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 Disclosures and illustrating Thayer’s belief that all animal coloration, regardless of its apparent visibility, was the result of the natural-selection process that allowed animals to go unnoticed by predators or prey. Despite the evident fallacy of this belief, Thayer made a significant contribution to the study of camouflage by describing and differentiating the ways in which animals conceal themselves.
Thayer identified two visual phenomena undergirding this invisibility: “obliterative countershading” and “disruptive patterning.” In the first, animal skins achieve an illusion of monochrome flatness via coloration darkest in sunlit parts and lightest in areas generally bathed in shadows: examples include the light bellies of otherwise dark rabbit coats or the silver undersides of sharks. The resulting visual compression of a three-dimensional form produces an illusion of monochrome flatness. The second principle takes this illusion to the next level of protective concealment: mottled patterns corresponding to the animal’s habitat disrupt the contours of its flat silhouette, resulting in an impression of not being there. An example is the coloration of bullfrogs. Natural selection, continued Thayer, favors individuals visually expressing one or both of these traits and constructs a world of momentarily evanescent animal objects.
This protective coloration was, claimed Thayer, related to a notion of concealment specific to a particular instant snapped out of a continuum of time. As he would later write, “At these crucial moments in the lives of animals when they are on the verge of catching or being caught, sight is the indispensable sense. It is for these moments that their coloration is best adapted, and when looked at from the viewpoint of the enemy or prey as the case may be, proves to be obliterative.”
Thayer introduced his law as a scientific discovery of great importance, uncovered through the workings of an artistic mind. Thayer’s first scientific article received widespread and justified praise. Using the language of art and optics, he had, for perhaps the first time, explained precisely why many animals seem to blend in with their surroundings. In 1903, he extended his powers of observation to elucidate another principle of camouflage, the disruptive effects of patterned markings such as stripes or spots. These markings disguise an animal’s contours by making its contiguous parts seem unrelated to one another.
Many of Thayer’s projects were collected in the massive and profusely illustrated 1909 publication Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom. The book sold well, yet had its skeptics. Some biologists, including those initially supportive of Thayer’s work in the 1890s, were quick to point out that many animals use their coloration to become more visible, as when trying to attract the attention of a potential mate or to ward away potential predators. Thayer seems to have been stubbornly resistant to questioning and to contradictory evidence.
While the US government had been resistant at the turn of the century to Thayer’s exhortations that “ruptive” or “dazzle” camouflage could be useful in wartime, by the advent of World War I, they became a receptive audience. A special group of artists, designers, and carpenters designated Company A of the 40th Engineers was enlisted as the “Camouflage Corps” to study and implement the principles of concealing coloration. Thus, although not himself an active member of the team who developed military camouflage, Thayer’s beliefs about disruptive optics found both staunch support and pragmatic use.