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Interior Decoration - Color

( Originally Published 1922 )

COLOR covers everything, outlining and emphasizing shapes and making them easy to see. Its wide distribution, instant appeal, and powerful emotional effect made it a dominant element in the language of decoration. Delight in color is a universal human characteristic, found among the most primitive as well as among the most highly cultivated peoples. It has been a factor of importance in both biological and social evolution, and is doubtless destined to be an even more important factor in the cultural evolution of the future. Having the power to arouse or to sooth, to cheer or to depress, color largely creates the atmosphere, the in-dwelling and pervading influence, of our homes. By color our rooms are made grave or gay, warm or cool, suave, sympathetic or repellent.

Color is a property of light. When the light goes out color goes with it. Sitting in a drawing room as afternoon passes into evening, we see the rich and glowing colors of textiles, pictures and porcelains lose first their brilliancy, then their distinctive hues, and finally disappear altogether, as a flaming sunset fades into gray and deadens into black.

Solar energy reaches the earth in the form of ether vibrations of varying wave-length. Those which fall between certain maximum and minimum limits affect the nerves of the eye and yield the sensations of color. The white light of the sun is made up of a great number of rays so blended as to yield no sensation of color. If, however, a beam of white light be passed through a prism it is broken down into its constituent elements, which appear as separate bands of colored light. Some surfaces, illumined by white light, reflect practically all the rays, and therefore appear to be white. Other surfaces absorb practically all the rays and reflect none, and therefore appear to be black. Most surfaces, however, absorb all the rays except those which yield a single color sensation, and therefore appear to be of that color. Thus a blue ribbon is a rib-bon which absorbs all the rays except blue. Most surfaces, moreover, reflect not only a characteristic colored light but also a greater or less amount of white light, so that a blue ribbon may be so light as to appear almost white, or so dark as to appear almost black.

The light rays, as they are reflected by all the surfaces within the field of vision, are received by the eye and focused upon the retina, a recording apparatus of incomprehensible fineness and complexity, made up of millions of nerves which appear under the micro-scope in the form of infinitesimal rods and cones, each of which is connected with the optic nerve leading to the brain. Just what takes place in the eye when light enters it is not known, but there is reason to believe that while the rods are chiefly sensitive to white light the cones are sensitive to vibrations of definite wave-lengths only, and are thus capable of communicating to the brain a definite color sensation. When the cones normally affected by vibrations of a given wave-length are absent or fail to function properly the corresponding color sensation cannot be registered in the brain, and the person whose eye is so constructed is color blind. The color nerves tire quickly. When the eye is compelled to gaze at the same hue for some time the nerves employed become tired and incapable of a vivid sensation, as every one has noticed in matching colors. They must be relieved temporarily by another set of nerves—a fact that shows the physical basis for the esthetic need of variety in color composition.

The study of color is made more difficult by the fact color phenomena are investigated and described in terms of colored light by the physicist, and in terms of pigments by the artist and color worker. The scientist, passing a ray of light through a spectroscope, finds that it is broken down into a flat band of color containing more than a thousand hues, with red at one end and violet at the other; that these hues stand in definite relationships to each other ; and that they be-have in certain ways when variously combined.

The artist, however, does not work with colored lights, but with pigments, which lack the power of complete absorption and therefore yield results different from those obtained when working with light. Since we are concerned in interior decoration almost exclusively with the pigment colors, and are in fact concerned primarily with color perception and only incidentally with color theory, it seems wiser in the brief study of color to be included in this volume to follow —with reservations—Chevreul and the older colorists. This method will afford the easiest and most simple approach to the subject, and the most helpful results in practice. The student who wants an accurate knowledge of the scientific theories of color can consult Rood, Von Bezold and Luckiesh.

There are three pigmentai hues which cannot be produced by any admixture of other colors, but which are themselves capable of producing, in conjunction with black and white, all other colors. These three colors, which for this reason are called the primaries, are red, yellow and blue. Being as unlike as possible, they may, for the sake of clearness in color study, be conceived as lying at the points of an equilateral triangle inscribed within the circumference of a circle, as in Figure 7. Any two of the primaries can be mixed to form a third color which partakes equally of the qualities of its constituent primaries. Thus red and yellow yield orange, yellow and blue yield green, and blue and red yield violet. These resultant hues, which are called the secondaries, or binaries, will accordingly lie midway between the two primaries which unite to form them and directly opposite the third primary on the chromatic circle.

Instead of uniting any two of the primaries to form binaries, or colors partaking equally of the qualities of their components, we can of course unite them in different proportions to form other hues partaking unequally of these qualities. Thus red can be made dominant in a mixture of red and yellow in a degree that will produce red-orange, a color sharing equally the qualities of red and of orange, and therefore properly lying midway between those colors on the chromatic circle. Similarly, yellow may be made dominant in a degree to form yellow-orange, lying midway between orange and yellow. This process can be continued indefinitely, since it is manifest that any two primaries can be united in any proportions whatever, thus obtaining in theory an infinity of hues differing by infinitesimal gradations. Most of these hues have not been standardized or named. Chevreul, the pioneer in color theory, divided the chromatic circle into seventy-two parts. Ridgeway, whose Color Standards and Nomenclature is an extraordinarily painstaking and most valuable work, makes a division of the spectrum hues—including those hues between violet and red, which do not appear in the solar spectrum—into thirty- six colors, which are here given in their order from red through orange, yellow, green, blue, violet and back to red. The letters R, 0-R, 00-R, and so on, indicate the proper positions of the hues in the circle, as well as the relative proportions of the two components in each hue. The names are those employed by the author.

Each hue thus formed by the mixture of two primaries, in whatever proportions, will have the same intensity as the primaries themselves ; and since these pure colors are intolerable except in the smallest areas, we must in color work change their character by adding black, white, or gray, or by neutralization through the use of complementaries. Thus, by adding a little black to each color in the chromatic circle we obtain a new circle of colors, slightly darker and duller than the original hues. By adding a little more black we obtain a second circle, still darker and more dull ; and this process can be continued until the amount of black in the mixture renders the original hues practically indistinguishable. Another series can be produced by adding white in progressively increasing quantities to the spectrum hues, up to the point where the original colors become the palest of tints and practically in-distinguishable, like the colors on the inside of a shell. Chevreul, in the color plates included in Des Couleurs, makes the change by regular ten per cent. increases in the quantity of black or white. Ridgeway gives a typical eight interval scale, starting with spectrum red and ranging downward to black and upward to white.

In addition to these scales produced by the addition of varying quantities of black or white to the spectrum hues, we can produce new colors by adding to each of the spectrum hues definite and increasing amounts of neutral gray, the effect of these additions being, not to make the colors increasingly darker or lighter, but rather to make them increasingly less pure and more grayish. The table below, which, together with the one that follows, is also taken from Ridgeway's work, illustrates the process as applied to spectrum red.

Using any one of these grayed-out variants of the spectrum hues as a base we can in turn construct a new scale ranging in value from black upward to white.

If we take a considerable quantity of orange cadmium paint and add to it a very small amount of ultra-marine blue, the orange will immediately lose a little of its purity and become slightly more grayish, and it will continue to grow progressively less orange and more gray as the amount of blue in the mixture is progressively increased, until finally all trace of orange disappears and nothing remains but a neutral gray. Any two hues which thus complete each other in the production of neutral gray are called complementary colors. In the chromatic circle each one of a pair of complementaries lies directly opposite the other, since each is made up of a hue or hues which have no part in the composition of the other.

It is obvious that a pair of complementary colors will neutralize each other completely—that is, they will unite to form a colorless gray—only when they are mixed in a certain proportion, and that when they are mixed in any other proportion the result will not be a neutral gray, but a more or less grayish tone of the hue which is in excess in the mixture. An un-limited variation in these stages of neutralization is therefore possible, but for the sake of clearness three stages are ordinarily recognized in decorative practice. Thus we speak of full intensity colors, and of colors of three-fourth, one-half and ove-fourth intensity. The resulting colors are in intensity the same as would be produced by the addition to the spectrum hues of one, two, and three parts of neutral gray. Thus the pure scarlet of the spectrum becomes, when reduced to three-fourths intensity, coral red. When reduced to one-half intensity it becomes Etruscan red; while at one-fourth intensity it is a deep brownish mauve.

It is clear from the preceding discussion that the colors differ from each other in several ways, and that to speak of a color as red, or blue, or violet is to communicate to the mind of the auditor a very incomplete and inaccurate idea of the real nature of the color. In fact a color, in order to be accurately characterized, must be described in terms of three different attributes, called the color constants. These constants are hue, purity or intensity, and luminosity or value.

Hue is that property of a color which depends upon its optical composition, and determines its position in the chromatic circle. Thus red, orange, yellow-green, blue-violet and purple are hues. Normal hues are hues which approach as closely as possible in pigments to the colors of the solar spectrum. Emerald is the normal hue of green, and grenadine red the normal hue of red-orange. Colors which are darker than the normal hue are called dark colors ; those which are lighter than the normal are called light colors. Those variations of a hue which are produced by the addition of black to the normal are called shades of that hue; while those formed by the addition of white are called tints of the hue. Thus carmine is a shade of red and begonia rose is a tint of red.

The purity or intensity of a color depends upon its relative freedom from white light. Purity therefore expresses the amount or degree of the hue present, as distinguished from the total amount of light, both white and colored, present. While no pigments are wholly free from white light, the normal hues are called pure. They lose purity as they are progressively neutralized by union with their complementaries, or degraded by the admixture of black, white or neutral gray. Thus garnet, la France, and jasper red are impure variants of scarlet-red, formed respectively by the addition of black, white and neutral gray to the normal.

Luminosity or value is that characteristic of a color which depends upon the total amount of light, both colored and white, reflected to the eye. Value, in painting and the allied arts, is defined by the Century dictionary as the relation of one object, part or atmospheric plane of a picture to the others with reference to light and shade, the idea of hue being abstracted. Thus normal yellow, though it is identical with normal red in purity, exceeds it in luminosity. White exceeds all the hues in luminosity, while the tints of any hue are more luminous than its shades, in direct proportion to the white in the mixture, and without any reference to the relative purity or neutrality of the hue. The value of a given color may be determined by comparing it with a scale of neutral grays, ranging from black with a value of o to white with a value of too; or, roughly, with the gamut black, dark-gray, gray, light-gray and white.

Variations in the luminosity or brightness of a color are called tones of that color. The summer sky, surveyed from horizon to zenith, reveals numberless tones of blue, as a distant forest or a field of young grain reveal numberless tones of green or yellow-green. This usage of the word tone must be carefully noted, for it will be constantly and consistently employed. It differs from the usage of painters, who ordinarily em-ploy the word tone to express similarity of tone, or the prevalence of like tones.

It is in fact imperative that the reader who desires to understand the discussion of color included in this study of interior decoration accept the few definitions of color terms precisely as they are stated. Definitions are absolutely necessary to clear concepts, and inasmuch as writers on color habitually use its terms with varying connotations, the words employed in this volume with one significance may be encountered else-where with another. The study of color is perplexing at best. It becomes unintelligible when there is any doubt as to the meaning of the terms employed.

The unscientific and confusing system of color nomenclature is, unhappily, a source of perplexities which no care can unravel. Color has always been more a matter of fancy and of fashion than of exact knowledge, and as a result the hundreds of color names used in the arts have been drawn indiscriminately from any source that proved suggestive--from the earth and the heavens above the earth and the waters beneath it —and applied in ways nearly always inexact and frequently misleading. Of all the hues the blue-reds have the most accurately-descriptive terms, perhaps because the violets and purples have always been of more interest to poets than to common men; yet even here there is no pretense of a scientific or even of an accu-rate nomenclature. For example, to take a few only of these color names, the term purple comes from a shell; violet, lilac, lavender, mauve, iris, amaranth, petunia and hyacinth from flowers; mulberry, rasp-berry, plum and prune from fruits; and amethyst the word itself means a remedy for drunkenness—from a stone. Puce is French for flea; gridelin is contracted from gris de lin; Bishop's purple and London smoke are loosely descriptive, and elephant's breath is a pure creation of the fancy of an earlier day.

With the best intentions in the world it is quite impossible to use such terms exactly, or even intelligibly, so that among professional workers in color—to say nothing of laymen—a given color name will rarely convey precisely the same idea to two different individuals. The inevitable confusion is heightened by manufacturers, who not only constantly launch new color names, but also employ widely varying colors under the old names. Many more or less complete and elaborate systems of color notation have been devised, notably those of Chevreul, Maxwell, Oberthür et Dauthenay, and Ridgeway; but these systems have never been widely adopted. Considerable progress toward standardization has been made in the last decade; but at the present time the great number of color sensations can be described with approximate accuracy only in terms of their relations to the primary and binary hues, and to black, white and gray. This system is clumsy and tedious, but it is the best available to one who desires to be widely understood.

The effects of color upon our emotional states are indubitable. As to the degree in which these effects are due on the one hand to association of ideas and on the other to differences in the rapidity of light-ray vibrations it is impossible in the light of our present knowledge to speak definitely. Red is the color of fire and of blood, as violet is the color of shadows, and it is inconceivable that the mind could remain unaffected by these associations in the presence of either color. On the other hand, red lies at one end of the spectrum and violet at the other, and it is equally in-conceivable that the brain, as a physical organism, could remain unaffected by the enormously different rates of vibration. In any case the matter is of scientific interest only. It is enough for the decorator to know that the various hues possess distinctive emotional qualities; that the colors vary in emotional value not only with hue, but also with purity and luminosity; and that through proper selection of the hues, proper emphasis upon purity or neutrality and upon high or low tones, he can—with the convergent use of line and form—express in his rooms any motive that appeals to his artistic judgment as fitting.

The colors are first of all divisible into two groups, the warm and the cold Warm colors are those in which red or yellow predominate ; cold colors those in which blue predominates. The warm colors tend to impart warmth to any composition in which they are employed; they cause surfaces covered with them to appear to advance or come forward in plane; they are suggestive of impetuous or instinctive action as op-posed to calculative or reflective action; they are cheerful, vivacious, joyous, and relatively stimulating and exciting. The cool colors on the other hand tend to impart coldness to any composition in which they are employed; they cause surfaces covered with them to appear to retreat in plane; they are suggestive of reflective as opposed to instinctive action ; they are calm, sober and serious, and relatively tranquillizing and depressing. The hues vary in warmth and coldness directly with their purity, Vermilion is warmer than maroon or pink, and ultra-marine is colder than indigo or azure.

In addition to these group characteristics each of the primary and binary hues possesses a distinctive emotional quality, which it tends to impart to its compounds and to express in any decorative composition in which it plays a part. Although these emotional qualities were understood and employed by the great colorists of the Renaissance, they have always been regarded by the layman as matters of fancy. They were, how-ever, confirmed scientifically during the last century by Féré, Binet, Wundt and other investigators.

Yellow, the color of light and hence of life, is the most brilliant, cheerful and exultant of the colors.

Red, the color of fire and of blood, is the warmest, most vigorous and most exciting of the colors.

Blue, the color of the starlit sky and of deep and still waters, and hence of profundity and vastness and illimitable spaces, is the coldest and the most tranquil of the colors.

Used in decoration, yellow is sunny, livable and in-spiriting; red is suggestive of richness, warmth, hospitality and splendor; blue of calmness, tranquillity and dignity.

Considered emotionally the three primaries, yellow, red and blue, seem not only to symbolize but also to express the cycle of human life—the exultant life of its morning, the battle and passion of its noon, the tranquillity and at last the coldness of its night. In some intuitive way man seems always to have felt this, for the three hues are constantly found together in primitive art. Certain colorists of the Renaissance reduced the feeling to a formula, and held that no scheme of color could be emotionally satisfactory unless all three of the primaries appeared in it.

The binaries are compounds emotionally as well as physically. Orange, the product of two warm colors, has the potency of both. Sharing the heat of red and the light of yellow, it is the most powerful color, being when relatively pure very decorative but hot and irritating. When greatly reduced in intensity to the golden browns and tans it is warm, cheerful and unifying.

Green and violet are products of the union of warm and cold primaries, and accordingly possess qualities markedly different from those of their constituents, as a salt differs from the powerful base and acid that combine to produce it. The greens vary widely in character, being warm or cool, sunny or somber, ac-cording to the relative quantities of yellow and blue in their composition. When partly neutralized or pleasantly broken with gray, green is calm, restful and refreshing.

Violet is the color of shadows and of mystery. Violet and purple have always had a peculiar fascination for poets, esthetes and mystics; and however fanciful their extravagances it is true that these colors do possess a subtle suggestive quality—a sense of mysteries half-explored, of fires quenched but still burning not shared by the other hues.

Black, white and gray will be studied at some length in the chapter on light and shade. It may, however, be noted here that, used by themselves and on large areas, black can suggest only darkness and gloom, and white only a cold purity. Used together in composition, especially in small sharply-contrasted masses, they yield the same effect of concentrated activity that al-ways results from the struggle of powerful opposites. When fused they produce neutral and characterless grays. All the grays are soft and unaggressive. True gray is as neutral emotionally as it is in color, while the tones of gray range upward toward the gentle serenity of light gray and downward toward the sobriety and melancholy of dark gray.

Black imparts solemnity to any composition in which it plays an important part. Used in small masses with other colors it serves to accent the peculiarities of the others, and thus to give an effect of concentration and vigor. White has the same power to give animation through the effect of tone contrast, and sets off the cool colors as black sets off the warm. When the cold purity of white has been banished by a little yellow, as in cream and ivory, it expresses a dignified and cheerful serenity.

The positive individual qualities of the hues vary directly with their purity. All the normal hues are powerful, bold, somewhat crude, of pronounced individuality, and obvious. They tend to lose these characteristics as they approach neutrality or are broken with gray, while at the same time they gain in quietness, subtlety and refinement. Since interior decoration is essentially a social art, and since the social qualities demand subordination of self, it is clear that pure or almost pure colors can be used infrequently, and then in very limited areas only.

All the colors vary in emotional qualities with their luminosity, or value. Light tones, like curved lines, are associated with instinctive action, while dark tones, like straight lines, are associated with reflective action. All light tones, simply as values, and apart from any qualities of the hues themselves, have a relatively exciting and exhilarating effect, while all dark tones have a contrary effect. The high values express the ideas of activity, gayety, transience, delicacy, fragility, lightness and grace ; while the low values express the ideas of inactivity, sobriety, permanence, strength, weight, repose and dignity.

The use of color in decorative composition will be discussed in several of the later chapters. The student of interior decoration must, however, be alert to gather ideas helpful in color practice from every practicable source—from nature, from art, and from books. There is a considerable literature of color, and much may be learned from reading; but this reading must be done intelligently. We have seen that the study of color is made difficult by the lack of a definite system of color notation, and by the fact that one class of writers employs the theory and terminology of colored light, and another class the theory and terminology of pigments. A third source of confusion exists in the fact that most of what has been written of color practice applies primarily to the art of painting, and very little of it directly to the art of interior decoration.

In their use of color painting and decoration differ widely, as Professor Raymond has pointed out, both in motive and technique ; and what is said about one art is accordingly only partially applicable to the other. The painter uses color in order to represent nature, while the decorator uses it for its own sake. (The most modern of the .painters, who have wholly discarded representation, in effect use color as it is used in decoration.) The painter deals with small areas, which he covers with small masses of color revealing wide variation in hue and practically unlimited variation in tone. The decorator deals with large areas, covered with large masses of color, and revealing relatively few hues and a relatively limited variation in tone. One art uses chiefly the greens, grays, purples and light blues so common in nature, while the other uses chiefly the warm colors, and blue in darker rather than in lighter tones. The painter is frequently justified, in order faithfully to set forth what he sees, in introducing inharmonious colors; the decorator, who uses color for its esthetic value purely, has no such justification. Finally, the primary aim in painting is to create something which shall be beautiful in itself ; while the primary aim in interior decoration is to create something which shall be beautiful in conjunction with, and as a background for, the people who use the room. Merely to state these differences is enough to emphasize the need for caution in applying to the art of interior decoration the general literature of color.

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