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The Effect Of Color Upon Color

( Originally Published 1924 )

"Color in association with other colors is different from the same color by itself. It has a distinct and peculiar power on the retina dependent on its association, consequently the color of an object is not more dependent upon the nature of the object itself and the eye beholding it than on the color of the objects near it."—JOHN RUSKIN.

Simultaneous Contrast

The art critic is sounding the "Law of Simultaneous Contrast" as stated by the eminent authority, Chevreul: "If we look simultaneously upon two stripes of different intensities of the same color, or upon two stripes of the same intensity of different colors placed side by side, if the stripes are not too wide, the eye perceives certain modifications which in the first place influence the intensity of color, and in the second, the optical composition of the two juxtaposed colors respectively.

"Now as these modifications make the stripes appear different from what they really are, I give to them the name of simultaneous contrast of colors; and I call contrast of tone the modification in intensity of color, and contrast of color that which affects the optical composition of each juxtaposed color."

The Law of Reflected Light

A very attractive girl was walking down the street carrying a smart short French-type umbrella of red purple which, when folded, gave rather a snappy note to her appearance. Suddenly it began to rain, and what a catastrophe ensued ! The moment she put up the umbrella she looked bilious and ill and as if she were destined for an early tomb. The purple which was a pure chromatic color, brought to the young lady's face its complement, yellow—a green-yellow at that, for a color modifies another color by injecting some of its complement into it. The observer of the young lady had just purchased the twin of the fatal umbrella. She sought out an artist friend, a colorist, and asked, "Who can safely carry a purple umbrella?" "Only a snow white lady or a coal-black negress !" was the artist's answer. Immediately the owner began to wonder to whom she could give her disillusioning possession.


A deep color placed against a paler color of the same hue tends to make the latter color weaker, just as a strong personality can efface a weaker one.

A young lady asked an expert to advise her concerning a hat she was contemplating purchasing. It was a lively blue, if such a cold color can ever be accused of such frivolity. To the expert's question, "Why such a vivid blue ?" the prospective purchaser replied, "To make my eyes blue." She had pleasant mildly-blue eyes. "Put on the hat, and then look in the mirror," was the suggestion. As the young lady obeyed, she exclaimed in surprize, "Why my eyes aren't blue at all. They're gray!" The deep blue of the hat was effacing the less intense blue of her eyes. If the hat had been of blue of less intensity than her eyes, the desired brightness might have been attained.

Here is another example of what harm color can do. (This is black magic, you see.) A faded Titian-haired woman, middle aged and thin, selected a gorgeous orange hat thinking that it would resurrect the tones of her hair. After the orange reflection came the reflection of its complement, blue, which turned itself into shadows, making all the hollows in her face and throat seem deeper, and giving the skin an ashen tone. Her friends soon suggested to the poor creature that she was going into a decline. The suggestion carried its effect and she took to her bed—all because of a hat !


If a red square of color is placed on a piece of green, immediately both red and green become more brilliant. The simultaneous contrast of hue causes each to be enhanced in intensity.

The rather drab person may use her knowledge of this principle and thus enliven her own coloring by choosing for adornment a color which is complementary but not too strong. The florid woman, stout, red-faced, red-haired, understands that red-haired people should wear blue, but unfortunately she chooses a violent peacock which should play up to the color of her eyes ; and, Shades of Ulysses and the Sirens ! the blue eyes are forgotten, she shrieks orange, violent action, and puffing energy ! Color only emphasizes its own aura, its complement. Blue emphasized the orange of the lady. She now chooses green—low-dark in value—combines it with brown chiffon or fur, and peacefully and poisefully, with graciousness, she dissembles her energy.


Colors which are not complementary or identical have a modulating effect upon each other.

A woman intensely florid in skin does not wear green which, because it is complementary to red, would brighten the red. Orange, which is not identical nor complementary, would dim the redness of the face; but, since pure orange is for most occasions taboo, she chooses a rich woodsy brown, which is the same orange neutralized. Various tones from beige, tan, or darker values of this brown may help this lady to a harmonious color plan.

Background and Color

The rules of Color Effect upon Color should be remembered when one is considering background.

A successful young artist painted the walls of his studio light gray, and while at work on a picture would never permit another picture or even a treasured curio to be visible, because he was so sensitive to the effect of color upon color that he could not gage what he was doing to his canvas.

The picture which every woman makes is no less affected by the colors which may be near her. A climber thought to establish her place in society by giving a ball. All decorations were in Pompeian red. She appeared, however, in a gown of Madeline rose ! Her self-effacement, altho not desired by her, was complete ! The canny woman chooses for her home environment those colors which set off the colors that she has found to be most becoming. In her own drawing room she should be as exquisitely framed as to harmony of color and texture as the most priceless portrait. Recently the boxes of the Metropolitan Opera House were re-decorated, exclusively under the direction of the individual box-holders. So no longer are they red, which was such a perplexing background, but of various tints and textures which harmonize with the chosen color scheme of the women who are themselves the decorations of the boxes.

Colors chosen for sports or out-of-doors clothes can be brilliant and play up to Nature's lavish employment of green foliage, yellow sand, and blue sky and ocean.

A woman who "came into money" had her home transformed into a gilded gorgeously-colored palace. No woman, especially the Jenny Wren type who was the mistress of this home, or her friends could successfully "play up" to the background. Solitude soon reigned.


Tone means the ensemble of colors. Beautiful tone means concordant color ; ugly tone means discordant color. In sound, one false note will change music to noise, and in color there is a perfect parallel. The more obvious harmonies and contrasts form color tones which, like the more usual intervals of sound, may be instantly appreciated and are entirely satisfying to the primitive and the child mind, but which inevitably pall upon the highly sensitive taste. Incidental notes in music enrich the harmonic structure. Incidental notes in color, unexpected vermilion among purples, or hyacinth insinuating itself into the company of turquoise and jade, bring life and brilliance which do not weary. Sometimes two themes in color may be worked out together with such skill that they seem but one. Greens and purples fused or playing hide and seek, may well remind us of polyphony. Even complementary colors may forget to be exactly contrapuntal and show marked "feeling." When luminosities and values and intensities are perfectly balanced the whole effect will be gray. The tone will seem dead in this imperfect world. We enjoy the many sides of our existence and revel in variety of temperament. We understand a picture that gives warmth or chill, gaiety or sadness ; its tone appeals. It is the exquisite unbalance of relationships that gives individuality and soul. So, in grayed colors harmonizing and contrasting, in darks and lights that can not be exactly measured, in delicate "sharps and flats" of hue, in luminosity lightly unbalanced, we write our symphonies. There in the personal touch, there in the unity of thought and feeling with expression, the hand of a master craftsman will reveal itself.

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