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Interior Decoration - Light And Shade

( Originally Published 1922 )

WE all recognize the importance of chiaroscuro in painting, of stage lighting in the drama, and even of lights and shadows in exterior architecture. Strangely enough, however, very few of us realize adequately the importance of light and shade as esthetic factors in the decoration of interiors.

Light is life. It stimulates and excites, while darkness is lethargic and depressing. Our vital energies flow and ebb with alterations in the intensity and the brilliancy of the light. Hence we must expect to find that our esthetic reactions are similarly affected by the same factors. In point of fact, light not only makes the beauty of harmonious coloring possible in our rooms, but by itself, apart from color, it gives them vitality, atmosphere, and emotional significance. Its life-giving, warming qualities make it a factor of tremendous importance in the art of decoration, where it enters into every problem of composition and concurs in the proper expression of every emotional idea.

One who wishes to prove experimentally, and in his own person, the power of light and darkness to affect his emotional states, has only to step out of doors before the dawn of a summer's day, and to remain out until after the fall of night. He will find that in the cold and feeble light which precedes the dawn his spirits fall, his mood becomes depressed. As the sky grows grayer and lighter the mood tends to pass, and with the first direct rays of the rising sun it is instantly succeeded by a feeling of gladness and elation. The flood of physical and psychical energies thus released by the power of the light seems, as the sun rises toward the zenith, to increase with the increasing quantity and brilliancy of the light.

In time, however, a point will be reached where increasing intensity of illumination has no further power to stimulate. Once this point has been passed the light becomes dazzling, fatiguing, finally even painful. When, with the approach of sunset, the brilliant light is softened and reduced, he will feel a sense of quiet well-being, of serenity and poise. After sunset, tired by the activities and excitement of the day, he will welcome the peace and calm of the shadows. But as the early shadows pass into the obscurity of night the peculiar power of the dark will against assert itself. Again his mood will become sober, then somber, and in time depressed.

Brilliant light, like pure color, rapidly exhausts nervous energy. It is fatiguing physically and un-endurable esthetically. The decorator must see to it that his rooms receive plenty of light, but he must also see to it that adequate means are provided to soften and dim this light when necessary, and to alter the amount admitted at each opening easily and at will.

Only in this way can the room be made pleasant under all conditions of natural light, and adjusted perfectly to the changing moods of its occupants, which will demand, both for physical comfort and for esthetic enjoyment, wide and relatively frequent changes in the quantity as well as in the intensity of the light.

In practice this means that the windows of most rooms should be provided with thin undercurtains, which will serve to temper the glare of over-brilliant sunlight by day, and to give to the room so curtained a suggestion of reticence and an esthetic quality of softness and subtlety otherwise absent, while at night they hide the bleak or black rectangles revealed by uncurtained windows, or the no less unpleasant drawn shades. Undercurtains may be made of net, muslin, silk tissue, casement cloth, or any other thin material, and they may be, and very often are, mounted on small brazed or bone rings and a rod, so that they can be easily drawn or pushed back when it is desired to make the most of the morning sun, or to reveal a fine view.

In addition to the undercurtains, which temper the light but are incapable of excluding it altogether, most windows require either shades or hangings made to draw easily across the entire window, in order that the light may be properly within the control of the decorator. In point of beauty and distinction the movable hangings are of course to be preferred. Their cost is, however, very much greater than that of shades, while they do not in fact control the light so perfectly as do properly made shades. In any case, apart from any considerations of color, line or texture, some method of controlling the light is absolutely essential for esthetic no less than for practical reasons, and the decorator must not permit himself to be carried away by the crochetty but rather widespread notion that the light should never be altered, and that there is a peculiar preciousness and virtue in making the inside of one's home as much as possible like the outdoors at all times and seasons.

The quantity and intensity of illumination desirable in a given room depends chiefly upon its purpose and the motive of its decorative treatment. In the degree that a room is to be used primarily for rest after labor and for recuperation from the effects of activity and excitement the amount and brilliancy of the light should be reduced to the minimum required for the physical comfort of the eye; while in the degree that it is to be a scene of animation and gayety, occupied by people who have energies to expend and who demand joyousness, vivacity and social contact, the amount and brilliancy of the light must be increased to the maximum permitted by the physical comfort of the eye. This principle conditions lighting both by day and by night, though it often happens that a given room will serve somewhat different needs by day and by night, and will accordingly require a different intensity of illumination. In its effect upon our comfort, and particularly upon our emotional states, artificial lighting is even more important than natural lighting, for we use artificial light at the end of the day, when work or worry have made their inevitable changes in our nervous condition, and when the stimulating power of bright light and the calming power of dim light must be used skillfully in order to correct or to confirm our moods.

Light in a room may be either direct or indirect. That is, it may reach the eye directly from its source, or it may be reflected and diffused by the walls, ceiling, or other surfaces of the room, the illuminating agent remaining out of sight. The dynamic, vitalizing power of light is peculiar to radiant light. Reflected light does not possess it. Thus a room lighted by reflected or diffused sunlight, though it may be cheerful and serene, can never possess the joyous, animating quality of a room which receives the direct rays of the sun. Nor can indirect artificial light, no matter how powerful its source, kindle a sense of gayety and excitement. There would be the same difference between a ballroom lighted, however skillfully, by the indirect method, and one lighted by crystal chandeliers, that there would be between dance music played with open and with muted strings. Indeed, the charm of any room depends largely upon the skillful use of radiant light. By night this light may come chiefly from ceiling fixtures, or from wall brackets, or from lamps. It may flood the whole room, as in a ballroom, or it may, as in a living room, be so shaded as to illuminate merely the keyboard of the piano, the corner of a reading table, or the arm of an easy chair. But unless there is some-where the gleam of light radiated directly from its source, there can be no vivacity or brilliancy of effect.

It is clear that the illumination of a given room will depend, first, upon the amount and character of the light admitted to the room by day or generated therein by night, and, secondly, upon the relative luminosity and power of reflection of the surfaces by which the light is diffused. If little light is admitted or generated the room will be relatively dark; and if little light is reflected the room will still be relatively dark, however great the amount of light admitted. What-ever light finds its way into a room is reflected and diffused chiefly by the walls and ceiling, and this diffusion will vary in direct proportion to the luminosity, height of tone, and smoothness of texture of those surfaces. Smooth white walls will yield a maximum reflection of light, and rough black walls a minimum. Between these two extremes the gamut of grays will vary in luminosity according to the amount of black in the mixture.

Textures vary widely in their power of reflecting light. Nearly all wall papers absorb more light than does paint, because of their relatively open textures; but the variations among different classes of papers, as among different classes of cloth fabrics, are too irregular to admit of classification. It is always wise in practice to test a given texture under the light with which it is to be used, if there is the least doubt as to how it will act. In general, it will be found that any paper or fabric, hung in large areas, will look distinctly darker than the sample looked in the shop, so that the total effect of the room will be lower in tone than was expected.

The differences in luminosity among the various hues, apart from considerations of tone and texture, are very great. These differences are illustrated graphically, though with approximate accuracy only, in Figure 42. Study of the curve of luminosity reveals, for example, that normal red, violet and blue reflect very little light, while normal yellow reflects a great amount; that yellow-orange is almost four times as luminous as red-orange; yellow-green six times as luminous as blue-green ; while normal yellow is almost twenty times as luminous as normal red. Inasmuch as the luminosity of the light-reflecting surfaces is a factor which largely determines the amount of light, either natural or artificial, necessary to bring a room up to a desired degree of illumination, it is evident that the importance of this factor in choosing the color of background surfaces can hardly be over-estimated. Where the amount of light available by day is limited by the situation or fenestration of the room, or the amount available by night is limited by considerations of economy, luminous colors and firm, smooth and light-reflecting textures must be chosen.

In determining the nature and distribution of light desirable in a given room, and the height of tone desirable in its various colored surfaces, the general problem of the decorator is five-fold. He must determine (a) the intensity and character of illumination most fitting for the particular room to be lighted; (b) the height of tone desirable for the background surfaces; (c) the distribution of light and dark tones as to position in the room; (d) their distribution as to relative area; and (e) the distance by which the principal and secondary tones must be separated in order to yield the maximum esthetic effect.

The first consideration was discussed in an earlier paragraph of this chapter, wherein it appeared that within the limits imposed by the physical comfort of the eye the amount and brilliancy of the light desirable in a given room will depend upon the function of the room, and hence upon the motive of its decorative treatment.

As to the distribution of light and shade according to position in the room, the fundamental fact here as everywhere in decorative composition is that beauty can appear only in the presence of unity in variety; and here, as everywhere, unity must be insured through the repetition of like elements and the predominance of one element. This consideration was discussed in the chapter on contrast, wherein it appeared that in the treatment of the background surfaces of the room three zones or registers of closely-related tones best satisfy the requirements of the mind, with the darkest zone at the floor, the lightest at the ceiling, and the mid-zone on the walls. It remains to ascertain what relative areas best please the mind, and how far apart in tone the three zones should be.

Sir Joshua Reynolds noted that the great Venetian colorists gave about one-fourth of each canvas to the lights, including the principal and secondary lights, about one-fourth to the shadows, and the remaining one-half to the mid-tones. This constitutes an excellent ideal toward which to work in interior decoration. In superficial area, before color is applied, the floor and ceiling of a room are equal, and together they are approximately equal to the wall area, including the openings. In practice there is wide room for variations in these proportions. The area of darks is reduced by the margin around the rug unless the floor is stained to a dark tone, and increased by dark furniture and furniture coverings and hangings; while the area of mid-tones is of course correspondingly reduced. Accordingly, it is the problem of the decorator—and a very simple one, if well considered—to choose and distribute his light and dark tones, of whatever hue, in such a way that the half-tones are plainly preponderant and as nearly as practicable equal to the total of both light and dark.

For example, in a room eighteen feet long, twelve feet wide, and nine feet high, the floor and ceiling areas would be 216 square feet each, or a total of 432 square feet, and the total wall areas, including the openings, 540 square feet. If the walls were done in tan of the luminosity of light gray, the ceiling in light cream, and the floor in golden brown of the luminosity of gray, while the windows were curtained with net or casement cloth to match the walls in tone, the half-tones would be clearly dominant and, in fact, considerably in excess of the esthetic requirement. If, however, four windows and two doors to adjoining rooms were hung with draperies to match the carpet in tone, averaging twenty-four square feet of exposed surface to each opening, and if the piano, bookcase and chairs appearing against the walls were of dark wood and had an aggregate of fifty square feet, the total of lights and darks would exceed 600 square feet, while the total of half-tones would be less than 350 square feet. In fact, the darks alone would slightly exceed the half-tones, thus destroying the unity and marring the beauty of the room by eliminating the dominant element. In this situation it would be necessary to substitute lighter hangings—for example, a printed linen of which one-fourth only of the area was dark—or to resort to some similar device or devices to correct the faulty distribution of the first arrangement.

In reference to the last consideration, it may be noted again that tone contrasts, whether between two back-ground areas, between a decorative object and its back-ground, or among the parts of a single unit, ought to be clearly perceptible but not so sharp that the mind fails to perceive as well the elements of tone likeness. A room in which the tone contrast between floor and wall or wall and ceiling is too slight, is in general only less unpleasant than one in which it is too marked. In the one case there is an effect of instability and lack of poise; in the other, of abruptness and lack of suavity. In order to enter most effectively into a harmony the three background surfaces, whatever their hues, should be about twenty-five degrees, or, in special situations, twenty or even fifteen degrees apart in tone. Thus colors having the luminosity of gray, light gray and gray-white, or of dark gray, gray and light gray, combine harmoniously when used on the floor, walls and ceiling, respectively. Of course this is not to be taken as an invariable rule, for there are no invariable rules in artistic practice. It is frequently modified widely to suit particular requirements, as when a ceiling is darkened to give strength or repose to a room, or when black and white or very dark and very light are used together in the decoration of a sun room or some other little-used apartment for the sake of vigor or brilliancy of effect; but in general it is a safe guide to restful and permanently agreeable results.

In the secondary contrasts between backgrounds and ornamental objects the two tones ought not in general to be more than fifty degrees apart. White, for example, emphasizes the effectiveness of gray. Cream white woodwork sets off reseda or tan walls having the luminosity of light gray, as well as dark reseda or brown rugs of the luminosity of gray; but when the contrasting tones are farther apart than white and gray —that is, more than fifty degrees on our scale—the effect is too abrupt for repose and beauty. The combination of black and white is very hard, and, not-withstanding the refreshing quality of the work done by Professor Hoffman and other European decorators, black and white rooms are too harsh for common use. Where black and white are employed in the same composition they should normally be separated by graduated intermediate tones, which make the transition by perceptible degrees of likeness. The general principle, governing all secondary contrasts of tone, as well as contrasts of hue, line, and form, is that the vivacity of a decorative treatment increases directly with the number and intensity of the contrasts. Sharper tone contrasts give to a room increased snap and animation, up to the point where unity of effect is lost, and complexity degenerates into confusion.

The decorator must not only arrange his light and dark color values in an orderly arrangement from top to bottom ; he must also, as far as practicable, so group the furnishings of his room that light tones are put with light, and dark with dark. This process of massing, as it is called by the painters, gives when skillfully carried out an effect of spaciousness, order and dignity quite impossible when furniture, hangings, upholsteries, screens, lamps and other colored objects are so placed that the lights and darks appear in small sharply contrasting masses and much divided. The hit-and-miss distribution of high and low values invariably perplexes and fatigues the eye and affects the mind with a sense of incoherence and disturbance, and the effect of spottiness and confused activity produced by the contrasts destroys the repose of the room, vulgarizes its decorative treatment, and robs it of distinction and charm.

A room gains in distinction and charm not only in the degree that the tones are so massed as to give breadth rather than spottiness of effect, but also in the degree that the illumination both by day and by night is so controlled as to divide the room, as a well-painted picture is divided, into areas of high and low illumination. Under natural light this effect must be achieved through a carefully studied arrangement of curtains, shades and hangings, and at night through a careful choice and arrangement of lamps with their shades. In this, as in other questions of decorative practice, principality is a first consideration. There must not be two equal areas of equal intensity of illumination. One area must be either larger or more brightly lighted than the other or others.

In planning the choice and arrangement of color in areas of low illumination, the decorator must remember that the hues do not lose character at the same rate with failing light. Red, which is so powerful a color in full light, fades into gray and deadens toward black most quickly, followed in order by yellow and green, while blue retains its character longest. Thus in a multi-colored composition we must expect to find the color relations characteristic of full light altered perceptibly when the light is dimmed by shaded lamps. The warm and brilliant hues will approach dark gray, while the cold hues will be changed but little.

It is also to be remembered that, even with modern electric lamps, there is a considerable difference between natural and artificial light, and that accordingly all colors to be used by night must be chosen with the modifications likely to be caused by artificial light in mind. While the only safe way is to try the actual fabric to be used under the lights of the room in which it is to be used, it may be noted as a general guide that all colored objects tend to appear black if lighted only by a color which they do not possess. There is much yellow and very little blue in the light of candles, oil lamps and gas jets, and for that reason, while red, orange and yellow surfaces illuminated by such a light will be changed but little, blue will appear either greenish or blackish, according to the amount of green or violet in it ; while violet will appear either grayish or reddish brown, according to the amount of blue or red in it.

The whole matter of proper illumination is of the very greatest importance, not only practically but artistically. Both the comfort and the beauty of our rooms are more largely dependent upon the amount, character and distribution of the light than most of us suspect. However, the subject is too large for treatment here, and the student must look to other sources—particularly to the studies of Luckiesh, which are avail-able in every library—for a more complete discussion. In point of fact, the distribution of light and of light and dark color in a room involves so many factors which are peculiar to that room and to its occupants that the happiest results can usually be attained only through experiment. The decorator must often arrange and rearrange until the arrangement finally satisfies. The difference in distinction and beauty between a perfect and a mediocre arrangement is so great that whatever time and energy is spent in experiment will be richly rewarded.

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