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All About Perspective: Zebras and Their Stripes


“Colour & Light—Zebras,” ca. 1913–1920; Smithsonian Libraries

Most of us take color for granted. We simply see it the moment that light beams from or reflects off an object, enters our eyes, and is processed by our brains. But do we stop to think what color actually is?

While sketching zebras in Sudan, Abel Chapman (1851–1929) noted that his perception of stripe patterns changed. Depending on distance and the angle of light, a zebra’s stripes could even seem to disappear. This animated GIF is rendered from Chapman’s drawing for his book Savage Sudan(London, 1921).

Chapman’s “Colour & Light” sketch and more can be seen in the Smithsonian Libraries’ exhibition “Color in a New Light,” which takes the viewer through the collections of Smithsonian Libraries—from chemistry to catalogs, from colorblind tests to couture—to show color in a new light.

The “Color in a New Light” exhibition is open through March 2017 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and can be viewed online.


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