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Decorating And The Dominant Hue

( Originally Published 1922 )

IN a study of this character, necessarily brief and necessarily didactic in method, it is difficult to say anything at all without saying too much. This difficulty is especially perplexing in the matter of color, where all is relative and nothing absolute, and where every rule is subject to numberless exceptions. However, we have at least a fixed point of departure, for we know that whatever colors are used in the decoration of a room, and however they are used, one among them must be dominant. That is, one hue must seem to give color character to the room, to make the strongest demand upon the attention, and to exercise the strongest influence upon the emotions. This it may do through superiority either in area or in intensity, or in both.

A hue may be made dominant through either of two general methods, which will be studied at some length in the chapter on color harmony. By the first method it is made a constituent of most of the other colors by a process of infusion, and appears on all the principal surfaces of the room in more or less subtle variations. By the second method it is used in relatively pure form on small areas, while the walls and ceiling are covered with grayed-out, almost neutral tones, either of the hue itself or of its complementary. Choice of the method will be determined in practice by artistic considerations.. Choice of the hue will be determined by practical considerations of fitness to purpose. Among these considerations the four of chief importance are (a) the purpose or character of the room ; (b) the nature and amount of the light; (c) personal preference; and (d) the amount of money available.

Choice of the dominant hue is in a considerable measure influenced by the purpose of the room. Each decorative treatment ought, as we have seen, to be built around a motive; and while the motive of a given room must be expressed through the convergent power of many different factors, the one most readily available, most easily emphasized, and most subtle in its effect, is the power of hue.

Of course purity and luminosity are factors but little less important than hue itself, and in some situations more important. Qualities which are sober, permanent and inactive are expressed in some degree by the low values of any hue, as those which are gay, sprightly or transient are expressed by the high values. In careful work, however, the decorator must add to the power of tone the peculiar power of hue. For example, in composition both pale blue and pale red express a measure of daintiness as well as a measure of gayety; but as a dominant hue there is in pale blue a suggestion of reticence and fastidiousness which makes it peculiarly the color of daintiness, and in pink an ardent quality which makes it peculiarly the color of gayety and abandon. This by no means implies that pale blue must always be used to express daintiness, but only the highest degree of daintiness ; as dark blue must be used to express the highest degree of tranquillity, or pale yellow to express the highest degree of animation and buoyancy. In ordinary situations the decorator can produce his effects in any one of several different ways, because he is aiming at moderation. As the degree of emphasis aimed at is increased, the methods by which the desired effect can be produced are correspondingly diminished, and when the extreme emphasis is desired the unique means through which it can be produced must be employed.

Red may be made to concur, as the dominant hue, in effects of warmth, of hospitality, of richness and splendor, and of excitement and activity. Obviously it is a poor bedroom color, nor can it often be used as the dominant color in the living room. It is, other considerations permitting, excellent in the hall, library or dining room.

In a hall not too brightly lighted, red gives a fine atmosphere of warmth and dignified welcome. Where the walls are paneled, or papered with a stripe or a simple diaper pattern, a rich-red figured rug, either an Oriental or a good copy, can be used effectively on the floor, while the red of its ground can be matched in the portières and in a plain or self-toned stair runner. Where the walls are covered with a damask or tapestry, or papered with verdure, landscape, or large-figured flock or duplex paper, a self-toned red rug will ordinarily be better, with hangings and stair runner to match. Here the walls can be almost any neutral, from warm gray to walnut. The strong, rich red will bring everything in the room under its dominance.

While we know that the library is used at all seasons of the year, and in many houses at all hours of the day, most of us, when we attempt in imagination to picture a library, see it on a winter's night, when the glow of an open fire plays over the rug and reveals the shadowy outlines of the bookcases and the dim folds of velvet draperies, and a deep-shaded lamp throws a beam of soft light over the arm of a big reading chair. And in this ideal library the color is always red—deep red in the rug and hangings, orange and vermilion in the flames, rose-red in the glow of the lamp shades, old reds in bookbindings and hunting prints.

It is the same with the dining room. We know the soft coolness of blue and silver, the restful freshness of reseda and ivory; yet when we think of the ideal dinner—of the soft lights, the hospitable warmth, the sparkle of crystal, the gleam of silver, the quick talk and gay laughter of the guests—we think of red, for the color is indissolubly bound in thought with the ideas of warmth, richness, hospitality and excitement.

Here we have to do with the question of tempera-ment. To some of us it is the intensity of an emotion that counts, not its duration, and life is chiefly precious for its golden hours. To others the ideal state is the one that can be evenly maintained, and a decorative treatment always mildly pleasing is better than one which, however perfect for its hour or season, is less pleasing for a great part of the time.

Present-day practice has worked out a method through which one can both eat his cake and keep it. The character of a red dining room or library may be changed in half an hour by covering the hangings and chairs with slip covers of cretonne, and by this simple and inexpensive device the room may be adapted alternately to summer and winter weather, while each change by contrast gives a new charm.

Yellow can be used as a dominant hue in any room, though it seems most fitting in the drawing room and breakfast room, and least fitting in the bedroom. The peculiar excellence of yellow lies in its cheerful and even joyous animation, its defect in an impersonal quality that makes it difficult to use in any apartment in which an effect of intimacy or camaraderie is aimed at.

Yellow is the most adaptable of all the colors. It is effective in all values, from the palest cream to the darkest yellow-brown, and is equally at home in the cheapest or the most sumptuous surroundings. A drawing room may be done in paneled and painted ivory walls, old Chinese rugs, yellow damask hangings, satin-wood and lacquered furniture and costly bric-à-brac, as a living room may be done in yellow calcimined walls, Sundour or cretonne hangings, fumed oak and willow furniture and inexpensive bric-à-brac—provided, of course, that the things are good in line and color—and the result will in each case be happy. Where yellow is made dominant in any room except the drawing room or breakfast room, the choice is usually determined by some other consideration than the purpose of the room.

As a dominant hue blue seems best adapted by nature to the bedroom, and least adapted to the breakfast room. It may be made dominant in any of the other rooms, though its coldness makes it a somewhat inhospitable color for the hall. As with yellow, the choice of blue is ordinarily based upon considerations either of lighting or of personal preference. It must always be influenced by the emotional purpose or motive of the room, whatever its practical purpose may be. Blue is by nature suggestive of stillness and inactivity, and it tends to impart these qualities to any decorative treatment in which it appears, in direct proportion to its area and intensity. Thus it will concur, as the dominant hue, in expressing ideas of tranquillity, repose, formality and elegance, but it will not concur in the ideas of animation and gayety.

Orange is most pleasant as the dominant hue when the yellow element in it is markedly in excess of the red. The browns have orange as a base. The red browns, produced from red-orange, are hot, aggressive and unmanageable colors. The golden browns, on the contrary, have something of the cheerfulness and animation of yellow and something of the warmth and hospitality of red, and are therefore excellent for living room, library and hall. They are too dead for the drawing room, and, in general, too lacking in individuality and force for the dining room.

Where violet—and this is also true of red-violet, or purple—is used as the dominant hue, its choice will always be determined by personal preference rather than by any innate fitness for a particular room. Violet will concur in effects of repose, dignity and elegance, and, in the higher values, of reticence and daintiness. Purple will concur in effects of dignity, sumptuousness and splendor. Its subdued warmth and subtle emotional qualities give it great value and distinction in decorative work, but it must be used only by those who like it.

Green may be made the dominant hue in any room where its quality of restful coolness is desired. Gray-greens and the broken tones of yellow-green are pleasantly suggestive of verdure and of nature in her softer moods. Green is, however, an earthy color, and its calmness has little of the spiritual quality of blue. The greens vary widely in character and emotional value as they pass from somber blue-green to sunny yellow-green, and as they change in value from dark to light. Moreover, they vary surprisingly in pleasantness, not only with purity but also with the texture in which they appear and the light under which they are seen. Some green textiles are hopelessly commonplace and uninteresting. On the other hand, many of the greens to be found in fine velvets and deep-pile rugs possess a distinction and charm not surpassed by any color and approached by few. The normal hue is unpleasant and, far from being restful, has an irritating quality, more potent to exhaust nervous energy than any other hue.

Color must be used to supplement or correct nature in making our rooms warm and sunny or cool and dim. Hence the choice of the dominant hue is often conditioned by the nature and amount of light received by the room to be decorated. If the light is deficient in quantity it must be conserved and diffused through the use, not only of high values, but also of hues possessing a high degree of luminosity. If it is deficient in warmth and brightness these qualities must be supplied by warm and bright colors. If it is hot or over-bright these defects must be remedied by cool and relatively non-luminous colors. The luminosity of the spectrum hues was discussed in the chapter on light and shade. It remains here to discuss their relative warmth.

Red is the warmest color and blue the coldest, with orange, yellow and green between them on one side of the chromatic circle and purple and violet on the other side. Rooms with a north light require relatively warm coloring, and rooms with a south light relatively cool ; and as a general but by no means an invariable rule one of the warm colors will be made dominant in a north or northeast room, and one of the cool colors in a south or southwest room. It is to be noted, however, that, while very sunny rooms require cool colors, they are most pleasant when light tones of those colors are employed. Light blues and greens temper and cool an over-sunny room; dark, cold tones of those hues would destroy the character of the room, being markedly inconsistent with its light, sunny and some-what gay nature. On the other hand, north rooms are in general most pleasant with darker tones of the warm hues, for the same reasons of congruity. Of course this does not mean that light, cool colors only are to be used in sunny rooms, or dark, warm colors only in north rooms. It means simply that the dominant hues and tones must vary with the light, subject to the general requirement of congruity that the tone of all colors will be progressively lowered with the increasing size of the room. Neutral gray has no place in north rooms. Where there is plenty of north light, a very warm gray—say a light sand—can be used on the walls in conjunction with rugs, hangings, upholstery stuffs and accessories in which red, rose, orange or golden yellows are emphasized ; but where there is only a little north light the room must have yellow. As an extreme instance we may take a dining room on the north side of a house shut in by hills and trees. Such a room, if small, could be treated with cream paneled walls and trim, a plain or self-tone rose-red rug, and chintz hangings containing rose-reds, blues and corn-yellows on a cream ground; or, if larger and more imposing, with black lacquered woodwork, soft yellow damask or grass-cloth walls, an orange-gold plain rug, and hangings of brocade in colors ranging from orange-red to the yellow of the walls.

Warm-colored walls are more agreeable to many people than cool, more becoming to many complexions, and more sympathetic backgrounds for other furnishings. For these reasons it is often wise to use cream or warm gray walls in a room where the dominant hue must be cold, rather than to put a light tone of the hue itself on the walls. Thus when yellow of the required tone is almost but not perfectly neutralized by its complementary violet, the resulting gray makes a better wall for a dominant violet or plum than would a violet-gray of the same tone.

Choice of the dominant hue is often conditioned, or at least influenced, by the size of the room. Tones of all the hues appear to advance or retreat, according to the amount of white light in them. "The whole room expands or dwindles," observed Professor James, "according as we raise or lower the gas jet." In addition to this very important consideration, the decorator must be governed by the fact, already noted, that the hues differ notably in their power to cause surfaces covered with them to appear to advance or retreat. Owing to the peculiar construction of the eye, the red rays from a given stimulus first affect the eye, followed by the other hues in the order of their warmth. For this reason the warm colors appear to bring in the walls of a room, while the cool colors appear to push them back. This power of hue was flatly denied by Ruskin, but it has been confirmed and explained by science since his day, and it is of course a matter of common observation. Parsons cites the interesting fact that a jury of six men, called upon to estimate the size of identical rooms, one colored throughout in spectral red and the other in light clear blue, judged the latter to be more than thirty per cent larger than the former. Even where mixed and relatively neutral walls are used, a room will vary perceptibly in apparent size with warm or cool color. This fact presents no difficulty to the decorator except in the case of small north rooms, which must be made warmer without being made smaller. Here he may resort to ivory walls and trim and a rose-red or yellow carpet, plain or self-toned, and covering the entire floor, since a rug would make the room look smaller by reason of the disposition of the eye to see the inner rather than the outer lines of the space; to light yellowish-gray walls with orange, and so on. Any north or coldly-lighted room may be made to appear warmer by the presence of growing plants and flowers, as the mind always associates the idea of warmth with growing things.

In as much as color is used in the house chiefly to give pleasure to its occupants, it is clear that, when other factors permit, personal taste or preference should determine the choice of the dominant hue. It is of course to be remembered that here, as elsewhere in decorative practice, personal fancy may be given a freer flight in the bedroom, boudoir, sewing room or study than in rooms shared in common, where compromises are often necessary.

A favorite color may be used on the walls in a degree of intensity ranging up to the maximum of one-half in cases where one is satisfied with the comparatively weak emotional reactions which relatively neutral color is capable of producing. Where the full emotional effect of a favorite color is desired, the purer color must be spotted in against almost neutral walls. The peculiar qualities of any hue tend to disappear, as we have seen, as the hue loses purity. No one who craves a rich, vibrant red will be satisfied with a reddish gray or a washed-out rose or pink, nor will he accept azure as a substitute for blue, or pale heliotrope in lieu of purple. The strong colors must, however, be kept off the walls. They may be used, if not too pure, on the floor, and even in the hangings and upholstery; but when they are used at all it will ordinarily be best to do the walls in some neutral, like cream, tan, putty, light taupe, or greenish-gray. It is a common mistake to assume that the stimulating or satisfying power of a favorite color depends upon the area of the surfaces over which it is distributed. In fact, it rather varies inversely with the area, and depends far more upon the intensity and quality of the color, and the texture in which it appears, than upon extension in space. A single ruby-red porcelain bowl against a cream or gray-green wall will have more power to satisfy a real craving for red than will a room done in crimson rugs, walls, and hangings.

Always in choosing the dominant hue care must be taken to select one that is becoming. Few women have an adequate conception of the degree in which their looks are affected by the colors of their rooms. We have already noted that the effect of ground color upon local color is often extraordinary, and it must always be remembered that the colors of floor, hangings and furniture coverings, and especially of the walls, are certain to affect for good or ill the colors of complexion, hair and costume. A woman who is too dark for example, ought to do her room in low tones, since the effect of white woodwork and pale walls will inevitably be to make her appear still darker. Similarly, a sallow complexion will appear more yellowish in a lavender room, because the violet will tinge the face with its complementary; while the woman who has too much color will find the red in her cheeks intensified and given a purplish cast in a room done in yellowish-green.

Readers of Locke's novel, "The Glory of Clementina," will recall an amusing instance—freely adapted, no doubt, from the historical incident of Napoleon's sister—of the effective use of color in the dinner scene. Here Clementina Wing, a great artist but a jealous woman, devised a wonderful scheme of table decorations in black and gold, amber and iris, which perfectly set off the beauty of her own complexion and costume, and at the same time sent into total eclipse a dangerous rival whose pale complexion, chestnut hair and lavender gown could not stand contact with the rich, strong colors. Most women are happily under no necessity for waging such merciless warfare, but every one is properly disposed to make the most of such gifts as the gods have vouchsafed. One of the agents always at her command is the wise use of background color. Many a woman who cannot understand why she fails to look her best at her own dinner table will find the answer in the walls behind her back.

The painter produces his color effects with paints, of which one hue costs little more than another. The decorator, on the other hand, produces his color effects with textiles and other materials, of which some are enormously more expensive than others. For this reason the amount of money available for the decoration of a given room is often an important factor in determining, or at least in limiting, the choice of the dominant hue. In the first place, many of the more subtle and beautiful colors can be found only in costly pile fabrics or damasks. In the case of floor coverings, many of these colors are never to be found in stock at all, and they can be used by the decorator only when there is both money and time to have rugs specially woven to order. Such colors as jade, reseda and vert antique among the greens, or apricot, copper and rose-red among the reds, are ordinarily confined to specially made and costly rugs and plain carpets. If they are stocked at all it will be only in weaves too expensive for use in ordinary homes.

Moreover, some colors look well in cheap materials, while others do not. For example, calcimine colors, which are very much cheaper than either canvas and oil paint or good wall paper, are pleasing in practically all the variants of yellow; but they are unpleasing in the variants of red and blue, including pink, rose, lavender, heliotrope, azure, and the soft, light blue-greens. Pale tints of blue or red are of questionable value as wall colors in any material, since pink keys up the nerves, while pale blue is associated in the mind with the idea of illimitable spaces, whereas the very nature of a wall is to be fixed and confining. If, how-ever, these colors are insisted upon for wall use, they must be employed in materials richer in appearance than calcimine.

In cheap textiles of all kinds pale tints of red, blue and violet are likely to be difficult to find and totally lacking in distinction, while the colors themselves fade quickly. Exception to this latter statement must be made in favor of the so-called Sundour or Sun-fast drapery stuffs, which are warranted to be fast to light. Few of these fabrics, however, have in the less expensive qualities any marked beauty of texture, and all have the serious defect of losing such beauty as they may possess when held against the light, which is of course precisely where draperies have to appear during the daytime. It may be noted that when these fabrics are made up without lining they must have ample fullness, so that the folds will help to shut out the glare of light and thus to enrich the texture as seen from the room.

As a general rule, it may be said that in cheap textiles of medium tone the variants of yellow or orange are the richest and most satisfying. Red appears to advantage only in relatively expensive materials, and the same is true in less degree of violet and blue. In most inexpensive fabrics the tints of a hue are more pleasing, though less stable, than its shades.

It is a characteristic of many housewives that they are unwilling to recognize the fact that certain color schemes can be worked out successfully only in costly materials, and that when such materials are too expensive another treatment must be substituted. Many of the very charming color schemes described in books or magazines were carried out in materials unavailable to the one who tries to copy or adapt them to her own home, and the use of cheaper substitutes can result only in disappointment. It is far easier to-day than it was a decade or two ago to give a room beauty of coloring through the use of relatively inexpensive materials, if one is willing to modify the scheme to fit the materials. The wise housewife will accordingly recognize the fatuity of trying to make gilt do the work of gold, and employ her ingenuity and taste in making her home attractive with such things as she can afford to pay for.

In conclusion, it is to be remembered that the colors have certain psycho-physical properties, and that in the case of invalids and persons suffering from nervous disorders these properties will influence and often deter-mine the choice of the dominant hue. The red-yellow-orange end of the spectrum is warm and active, while the blue-violet end is cold and passive. People normally feel aggressive and inclined to vigorous action when surrounded by red, and passive, with a tendency toward depression, when surrounded by blue. In the language of the laboratory, the warm colors are dynamogenic in their effect. They tend to develop nervous energies and to intensify those already under way, while those of the blue end tend to reduce or to inhibit such energies.

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