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Colour And Its Relation To The Decorative Idea

( Originally Published 1920 )



Man expresses his ideas or conveys his thoughts to others by means of language, and language consists of a set of symbols which serve to establish a standard system of communication between all persons by whom these symbols are understood. To all who understand English the word "boy" conveys practically the same general meaning. In any tongue the word symbol is meant to establish a criterion of understanding as to some object or idea for which the word symbol stands.

The same truth may be applied to musical tones. A succession of sounds or a chord of tones conveys to him who understands this language a concord of musical elements expanded into a motif. A quality or an emotion quite similar in its nature is aroused in all persons who hear and understand. Musical composition exists to convey from one person to others a stimulant, whose action on the aesthetic sense and on the consciousness of human beings shall result in awakening definite emotions, thus constructing definite ideas.

The picture language, and its efficient method of communicating ideas even between people who do not understand the same word language or the same sound language, is too well known and understood to require comment. Age, success, national limitations, and educational development are alike unable to destroy the power of the pictured idea.

Colour, which is perhaps one of the most potent and certainly one of the most pleasing means of expressing ideas, is least understood. It is of all language forms the most abused. This is partly due to the fact that in this age colour is usually accepted as good because it belonged to some period expression, or because some particular person used it, or, what is more lamentable, because some individual likes it for personal reasons. The sentimental aspect of colour, sensed and used for the orgy for emotions it creates, has done much to retard the scientific and sensible understanding and use of it. If it is worth knowing at all, it is worth understanding as well as feeling, and it is also worth using to express with the utmost perfection all that its component elements can possibly tell.

Like all other language expressions there are two ways of approaching it from the constructive standpoint: first, one may be surrounded by a harmonious colour environment. He may be led to see what is really good and bad under this condition and he may by unconscious absorption-particularly if he has a natural instinct for colour discernment-learn to sense right rela tionships and use them in his own life expression. This manner, however, of acquiring knowledge is one sided, and is applicable mostly to persons who are unusually endowed, leaving one with no standard of judgment except feeling. Since feelings are emotions and differ absolutely in individuals, they must also vary in every instance, and therefore the results of this training with most persons are somewhat unreliable.

On the other hand, colour, when considered as a power in nature, and regarded as a normal method of expressing ideas, may be as scientific in its inception and workings as any other power in nature, so becoming a tangible thing to acquire and use.

Science has not developed colour as it has sound, but there are many analogies apparent to the uninitiated. Sound is produced by the vibration of the ether surrounding us. Colour is produced by the vibration of light in the same ether. Sound, its combinations and messages, reach consciousness through the sense of hearing. Colour, its elemental meanings, combinations, and force, reach the same consciousness in the same way through the sense of sight. The impressions of sound and colour are interwoven in consciousness through association with other ideas and with each other, until music seems to have colour, and colour seems to express musical tone. In fact, so closely are these media associated in the minds of many persons that it is not difficult for them to translate a symphony in music to a colour harmony exciting the same emotions, or the colour harmony to the musical - symphony with the same results. It is not the purpose of this discussion to go into the details of these relationships, but only to bring to the mind of the reader the necessity for seeing colour at the outset from the same standpoint of common sense and adaptability for use that he sees sound symbols or picture representations. The interest which one has in a language and the progress he makes in acquiring it depend upon perceiving clearly the simplest elements in that language, their relation to each other and to ideas which they should express. The treatment of colour must be under the same conditions.

It has been said that colour originates in light. This may be proven by observing colours in the brilliant sunlight, in a shaded room, on a very dark day, just before dark, and in a perfectly darkened room if this were possi ble. The change in their appearance in each case is due to the change in light in which these observations are made. The colour of the object remains the same, but the condition under which the eye receives the impression changes. The dull day brings dull colours apparently, and similarly the bright day brilliant ones. This is because the light is bright or dull, and not because the pigment substance has in any way been changed.

This fact is important in the selection and arrangement of materials for furnishing a room, inasmuch as the room must be seen ordinarily in all kinds of weather, day and night., with both natural and artificial lights. Unless one knows what the normal colour is under normal circumstances, he is unable to use the artificial light which comes from electricity, gas, or oil, or to use hangings other than white, or to place upon his walls any colour from which light must be reflected onto all other objects associated with it. Is it not clear that the light entering a room may be changed in tone by the colour of the window hanging, through which it is filtered, by reflecting from the wall some of the colour which its surface shows, or from the changed aspect which it must take on if the light itself is produced by artificial means?

All of us have seen blue turn to green when seen under artificial light. We have seen violet almost become red, and another tone of violet appear gray. These are perfectly natural changes, and are due only to the effect which one element in colour produces on another when used in connection with it. Bad colour schemes could easily be avoided if we knew the power of each of the elements concerned.

It is wise at this point to differentiate between colour as the physicist uses the term in connection with colour in light, or as component elements of pure white light and the pigment colour so called, which includes dyestuffs, printers' inks, oil and water-colour paints, etc. These pigments are materials which absorb a part of each ray of light and leave the remaining part on the surface, giving the impression to the eye of the colour which one sees when he beholds any object.

In terms of general understanding there are three elemental pigments which express the three primary elements of colour found in white light. In pigment terms these three elements are called yellow, red, and blue, and are the primary colours in what is known as the colour spectrum. When these normal elements are in their fullest strength they are easily fused by mixing into a neutral gray in which no apparent colour is seen. This gray, eliminating all colour, is the proof that the three elemental pigments are the foundation of the colour language and that their fusion into gray is the translation of the rainbow spectrum into light.

Starting then with yellow, red, and blue of normal tone, all other colour tones, with the additional use of black and white, may be made. Because of this, yellow, red, and blue stand out as the simplest, most primitive, least involved, and most easily grasped of all colour tones.

It is easy to understand why young children, primitive races, and persons with an obtuse colour sense can without conscious effort appreciate yellow, red, and blue in their full brilliancy and in limitless areas. A more refined sense or a greater range of colour possibility ignores this crudeness, except in cases of extraordinary emphasis for very particular reasons.

Green as a normal colour is one-half yellow and onehalf blue in force; orange is one-half red and one-half yellow; purple is one-half red and one-half blue. These three colours, because there are two elements involved in each, are called binary colours, and these, since they contain two elements each, are less easily grasped, require a more cultivated sense, and express a wider range of quality idea.

With these six colours in mind let us examine the fundamental meaning of each. A colour tone should by its very nature mean a quality, and should arouse in the individual the feeling of quality, and not merely excite a feeling of pleasure or bring up by association the colour name.

Yellow is more than any of these like the sun or artificial light in its appearance. In fact, it is very like most artificial lights, and like the sun when one looks directly into it. Because of this, yellow is called light, and just as light brings cheer into the darkened room, just as it gives life to plant forms, just as its life-giving and cheergiving qualities are seen in other manifestations, so yellow, entering into any colour scheme whatever, introduces into it the same quality feelings of light, cheer, buoyancy and life.

The darkened city room, with its one window opening on a court, may be made livable and usable by means of a yellow wall paper, with a lighter, softer, yellow ceiling. Then, by bringing light yellow into the hangings and using yellow lamp shades lined with white, all the light will be conserved. The natural and artificial lights will be supplemented by the colour, and the qualities which light itself has will be forced into the scheme of the room. To forget the power of light in room arrangement is to forget the fundamental fact in all colour use. This does not mean that in any of these cases a perfectly full, intense, brilliant yellow should appear, but a colour tone, in which yellow is the dominating element. Such names as buff, cream, ecru, lemon, etc., are given to yellow colour tones in which yellow is the dominating element.

Red suggests blood and fire-blood as it relates to the life-giving or vitalizing force in man which makes him think more quickly and act more quickly-which arouses his passions, and creates ideas of warmth and irritation. This is particularly true because persons have been born and have lived with blood red in colour and with fire red in its dominating element. We know by life experience the effects of such things on the actions of man.

This quality of aggressive action on the part of red is curious in its effect when used in excess. Some two years ago in a large department store a small room was built and coloured throughout a bright normal red. A jury of six men was invited to estimate the size of the interior. The same room was removed to another part of the store and coloured in light clear blue. The same party of men was asked to estimate the size of this room.

They estimated the latter to be over thirty per cent. larger than the former, and refused to believe that the two rooms were identical.

Red, by its aggressive nature, seems to reach man's consciousness more quickly than blue and, therefore, the walls and ceilings seem to contract or to be brought closer together, thus lessening the apparent size of the room. The effect that red has upon animal life is well illustrated by its use in exciting the temper of the bull in the Spanish bull ring, the turkey gobbler on the New England farm, or the savage beast in the jungles of the African forest. This exciting quality which red possesses is a valuable asset for use in stage settings where the primary object is to create a state of emotion in the audience in harmony with the incident which the actors wish to force on public consciousness. Those who have seen Miss Nethersole, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, or Mrs. Fiske in any of their pronounced successes can readily see how the use and the absence of this colour have played a large part in the creation of an atmosphere calculated to convince the audience of the idea which the play portrayed.

The skillful use of red brings out-particularly in town houses-a quality of warmth and inviting hospitality not to be despised. On the other hand, a use of it in any considerable quantity in the country house suggests the temperature that is likely to prevail, instead of giving the impression of an antidote for the weather one is trying to escape.

Blue, the third element of colour, is known as the cold or non-aggressive element. It is this which holds red in check or destroys the too pronounced effect of yellow and red in a combination where the three elements appear. The association of blue with the cold aspect of the sky on a winter's night, with ice, when seen in thick cakes, with the blue waters of the ocean, etc., has given blue a place in human consciousness that must excite the qualities with which it is associated. Blue, then, on the stage and in the house, must be looked to for sensations of coolness, repose, restraint, and formality, as well as for an antidote in case of too warm a temperature or a too excited mental state.

Green is not only yellow and blue, but light and coolness, cheer and restraint. The grass and trees in summer, combined with the blue sky, help, if the climate is exhausting, to render people comfortable and to make life agreeable. Green is a colour heralded by oculists as beneficial to the eyes, and is regarded as soothing to tired nerves and injured dispositions. It is quite right that it should be so considered, since these qualitieslight and coolness, cheerfulness with moderation, rest and vitality-are intermingled equally in the sensations which green is asked to arouse when presented to the sense of sight. This makes green an admirable colour under certain circumstances to use in hot climates, in country houses, and for nervous people. When properly harmonized it may become a symphonic part of any combination under any circumstances.

The qualities of orange will also be found in yellow and red-that is, light and heat, cheerful vigour and irritation, vitality and aggression. Orange, then, unless controlled, arouses all those qualities opposed to green. It inevitably destroys the effect of repose, restraint, etc., excepting when used in counteracting combinations, where the control is with the other colour tones. Orange, with its accessory hues, includes such colours as browns of all kinds, red buffs, and many wood colours, as well as combinations with orange as dominant while other colours hold it in restraint so that its full power is not exercised. Small quantities of brilliant orange are possible, however, since only a small area is essential to give all the impression of that quality that is healthful for the ordinary individual.

Purple, the last of the binary colours, seems to have expressed itself even more clearly in the past, and is the most easily grasped of the three. All the qualities of red and all the qualities of blue fused together result practically in ashes. Ice and coals of fire would destroy each other; heat and arctic temperature neutralize each other; aggression and restraint balance or complement each other, and shade, quiet, or a mystic twilight result.

Purple has always been used with a mystic significance by the church and is known as royal purple because of its association with the mystic ceremonials of court life. Instinctively people have chosen purple to express the stage of mourning which exists between the period when vogue has declared pure black an expression of one's sorrow and the time when he may again wear any colour which to him seems suitable. Purple is shadow, and shadows in nature are always some purple tone. Shade, sorrow, mysticism, and dignity are the fundamental quality characteristics of this third binary colour when it is seen in its normal tone. There are many tones of this colour known in trade parlance as violet, lilac, lavender, elephant's breath, London smoke, mauve, etc., all of them being some manifestation of the combination of the two elements red and blue, with the addition of the other element yellow in some proportion, or of black, with purple still in control.

For a proper understanding of these colours and their real meaning it is essential to ignore the idea of vogue as it is formulated either by commercial enterprise or human fancy, and manifested from year to year in the fashions of the time. This statement must not be taken to mean that an entire room in any one of these colours is desirable under any circumstances. It is merely given to show what the introduction of any colour could mean and does mean, consciously or unconsciously, more or less, to anybody who lives in it. The word tone is the most general name in colour use. Any note of colour, including black, white, or gray, is a colour tone. The term "normal colour" is given to colour tones when they are at their fullest strength in the spectrum circuit or rainbow colour scheme. Any colour which is lighter than the normal colour is called a tint, and any colour which is darker than the normal colour, a shade. A neutral tone is a tone in which there is no apparent colour. Neutral gray, black, and white are the only true neutrals. Gold, in period study, is sometimes classed as a neutral tone, although of course it is always some modified form of yellow.

Every tone of colour has its three distinct qualities. We are apt to think of a colour as one simple thing, and to say it is either too strong or too weak without considering this fact. The first quality of a colour tone is its hue. In speaking of yellow we mean the normal primary yellow in which there is no other element present. One should be able to detect immediately if yellow has blue in it or if red is present in the slightest degree. As soon as any blue appears in yellow it begins to be a green. This green-any green in which there is more yellow apparent than blue-is called yellow green, and all tones of green between normal green and yellow belong to the class of hues called yellow green.

Add to normal yellow the slightest bit of red, and the colour approaches orange. In fact, it is a yellow orange, and all tones made up of red and yellow, which are nearer yellow than orange, belong to the class of hues known as yellow orange. Start with normal red and by the addition of yellow the colour tone approaches orange, but red is the dominating element. In such colour tones this is red orange because it belongs to the family orange and the element red is in excess of the element yellow. If we start with normal red and add blue, the purple hues appear. So long as red is the dominating element, the hues are the red purple. If blue is the starting point, however, and red is added, the hues between normal purple and blue are blue purple. When the starting point is blue, and yellow is added, the blue begins to assume a greenish hue, and blue green is the name given to the set of hues between normal blue and normal green.

These sets of tones which are found around the binary colours express hues of colour. It will be seen then that hue is the name of the colour itself, or that it really expresses the degree of so-called heat or cold which a colour has. The hues of colour between yellow and purple, including all greens and all blues, are cool colours. Those between yellow and purple, including all orange and red colour tones, are warm colours. It is this that gives significance to the expression "temperamental colour," one's temperament being expressed by the hues on the right or the left of the spectrum circuit.



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