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Decoration And The Law Of Contrast

( Originally Published 1922 )

WE have seen that beauty springs from unity in diversity, and that unity results from processes of comparison wherein like is placed with like—like lines, or shapes, or colors, or significances—until the multiplicity of individual units is related to a few types, and of these types one becomes dominant. Yet, though this conforms to the law of its being, the mind, like a child at play, quickly tires of the same old types. It will return to them; it must know all the time that they are there; but for the moment its interest can be retained only by showing it something different.

Contrast, as an artistic principle, is the result of this necessity. It is a means of giving zest to decorative compositions which, however harmonious, would with-out it be insipid. It opposes curved lines to straight, plain surfaces to ornamented, light tones to dark, and warm colors to cold, and by this opposition gives the charm of vividness to each.

In this, of course, artistic practice merely conforms to the general law of life, since all our states, both physical and emotional, are intensified by contrast. Sunshine always seems more brilliant after shadow, tranquillity more grateful after excitement. It is indeed only through contrast that we can discriminate between one state or emotion and another. We can enjoy warmth only because we have known cold, and rest because we have known effort. We perceive form or outline only where there is a contrast of hue or tone. We know smooth textures through contrast with rough, and warm colors through contrast with cold; while lines, shapes and colors are set off and their peculiar qualities made more marked through contrast with their opposites.

It happens, therefore, that in the effort so to select and arrange the furnishings of a given room as to make the room beautiful, the esthetic problem of the decorator is twofold. He must first of all ensure an easily perceptible unity through principality and the repetition of like elements, and he must also invest his room with a quality of interest and decorative charm through the opposition of contrasting elements. The contrasts chiefly employed will be those of hue, in which hues more or less markedly unlike are used together; of tone, in which relatively light tones are opposed to relatively dark; of purity, in which relatively pure col-ors are opposed to relatively neutral; of textures; of lines; of shapes; and of ornamented surfaces as op-posed to plain.

Besides its esthetic importance, contrast appears in decoration as a physical factor, the operation of which is to make unlike elements seem more unlike. It is in the nature of our perceptive faculties that when unlike things are compared their unlikeness is accentuated. When we see a tall chair and a low chair in the same group the tall one appears to be taller than it really is, and the short one still shorter by contrast. A picture hung in the midst of a large wall space seems smaller than it would if hung in a small space ; a long room appears longer if it is also narrow; a round mirror on a rectangular wall space is more striking than a rectangular mirror would be; pale colors appear more pale against darker grounds ; hues more intense against their complementaries; and a richly figured drapery fabric gains in emphasis and distinction from being hung against a plain wall fabric.

Figures 18 and 19, taken from Lipp's Raumaesthetik and geometrisch-optische Täuschungen, illustrate this physical effect of contrast. In the first figure the first and second lines are of equal length, as are the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth; pears the the to be distinctly shorter than the first, and the fourth distinctly shorter than the third. In the second figure the two mean circles are of the same diameter, but through contrast with the two extremes the second is made to appear smaller than the third.

Like phenomena appear constantly in decoration, Whenever the treatment of a room is so arranged that the eye makes a comparison of similar lines of different lengths, or of similar shapes of different sizes, their apparent differences are increased by the contrast. Dining chairs placed against a vertically paneled wall appear lower and more squat by reason of the contrast between the lines of their backs and those of the paneling; small tables look even smaller in a big room, as do small rugs on a large floor space ; a bookcase, highboy, chest of drawers or piano will appear wider in a narrow space, narrower in a wide space ; taller in a room with a low ceiling, and shorter in a room with a high ceiling.

For the same reason, whenever one dimension of a room or of any object is emphasized, the other dimensions are apparently diminished. A narrow bookcase, cabinet or chair appears to be taller than a wide piece of the same actual height, as a couch without a back seems to be longer than a high-backed settee of the same actual length. The practical importance of these considerations, which will be developed at length in the chapter on Proportion, lies in the fact that beauty and fitness in decoration are so largely dependent upon the apparent—as opposed to the actual—relationships in size and shape among the elements of a composition; and inasmuch as contrast is sure to change the apparent relationships in some degree the decorator must be prepared to foresee and allow for these changes.

Colors, even more than shapes, are affected by contrast. Color practice is in fact immensely complicated by the fact that a color is never seen by itself, but always in relation to other colors. These other colors react upon it, altering in some degree its appearance both in hue and in tone. Chevreul set forth the general principle involved in the formula: When the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in optical composition and in height of tone.

The changes effected by contrast in altering the height of tone of juxtaposed colors is illustrated by Figure 20. Here the small inner squares are all of exactly the same tone of gray, but they appear to grow progressively darker as the outer surfaces grow progressively lighter. The same phenomena appear when dark pictures or hangings are placed against light walls, or when light rugs are placed on a darker floor. More-over they appear whether the juxtaposed surfaces are in tones of neutral gray, in tones of the same hue, or in tones of different hues, as when a light red pillow is placed against a dark blue sofa. In the latter case, however, there is a double effect. Not only will the red appear lighter and the blue darker in tone, but each hue will also appear to be slightly tinged with the complementary of the other. That is, the red will be slightly tinged at the point of contact with orange, and the blue with green.

This phenomenon, which is called simultaneous contrast and is described and illustrated in every good text-book on optics, is of less importance in decoration than in painting, because the decorative areas are larger and the textures coarser. Nevertheless it is sufficiently important to require careful study and constant watch-fulness in practice. It may be observed by placing small squares of colored paper against differently colored backgrounds, or by means of lengths of plain drapery fabrics. If a piece of orange-colored velvet, for example, be held against successive backgrounds of black, white, ultramarine and green, it will seem to change color slightly with each background. Against black it will appear not only lighter but more golden, because the lighter or yellow element in its composition is more strongly accentuated by tone contrast than is the darker or red element. Against white it will appear both darker and more red, for the opposite reason. Against its complementary blue it gains in purity and brilliancy, and against green it becomes more reddish in hue, because it is tinged by the complementary of the green ground. Thus when red and blue are juxtaposed the red tends toward orange-red and the blue toward green-blue; yellow and green tend respectively to-ward orange-yellow and bluish green; green and blue toward yellowish-green and purple; and so on. When true complementary hues are juxtaposed each is made more brilliant by the contrast.

What is true of the spectrum colors is true of all their derivatives formed with black, gray and white, in direct proportion to the amount of white light in the color. Very light broken tones impart their complementaries more strongly than do darker tones, and are accordingly better adapted for the production of brilliant or elusive color effects. Simultaneous contrast is most marked when the two hues are in about the same tone. When dark colors are used with light the effect of simultaneous contrast is very slight. Contrast both in hue and in height of tone is made very much less marked by the use of materials of rough surface, coarse texture, or conspicuous design.

In discussing tone contrast it is of course to be re-membered that tones, as we have defined the word, are simply measures of relative light and darkness, the idea of hue or color proper being abstracted. We are not in this connection concerned with correct hue relation-ships, but with correct tone relationships, which is an entirely different matter. Thus it often happens that a color contrast entirely satisfactory as far as the hues are concerned is inharmonious because of bad tone contrast. A dull gold cushion on a dark blue davenport would be pleasing; a cushion of pale maize or primrose would not be.

Tone contrast is a factor of very great importance in interior decoration. Necessarily an element in every decorative problem, it must be carefully studied and skillfully employed. When so employed it becomes a source of beauty; when otherwise employed a source of discord and unrest. Nowhere in the art do we find a stronger confirmation of the statement that good decoration is not absolute but relative, and that the essential thing is correct relationship; for it constantly happens that a color, pleasing in itself, is so changed in tone by contiguous colors that it becomes unpleasing. The pastel or water color that blends restfully into the background of a soft gray wall will seem to start violently from a dark wall. The low-toned Kurdistan rug that rests as peacefully upon a dark floor as if it had grown there will ruin the repose of any room in which it is placed upon a floor of light yellow oak or maple.

Contrast of tone, like contrast of line, form or hue, is essential in good decoration because it helps to ensure the diversity without which beauty is impossible. Thus tone contrast is necessary between floor and wall, wall and ceiling, background and ornament, and between the structural and non-structural parts of a room. It is however a serious mistake to make these contrasts too marked, since they inevitably tend to arouse a sense of activity and hence to be destructive of repose. Many rooms have been spoiled by too sharp contrast between floor and wall, and many more by too sharp contrast between wall and ceiling—the latter defect being very common by reason of the widespread but erroneous idea that the ceiling must always be either white or a pale cream, regardless of the tone of the walls.

Bad tone contrast appears most frequently, however, and in the form most destructive of repose and beauty, in sharp contrasts between small masses, or between a small and a large mass. The motive in carpet or wall paper which is markedly lighter or darker than its back-ground, and therefore appears to stand out in a definite effect of relief ; the ebony piano against putty-colored walls, or the large mahogany dresser against pearl or pale French gray; pale-tinted cushions against dark, heavy upholstered furniture ; dark verdure tapestry pa-pers in a frieze above white paneled walls—these and a multitude of like offenses against harmonious tone relationships are constantly to be met with.

Monotone is tiresome, and to normal persons unendurable. The eye is never satisfied unless the visual field presents a diversity of tones. However, it must first of all be an orderly diversity, as otherwise the effect would be so incoherent that the mind could recognize essential tonal likenesses only with a sense of effort. Disorder is never an esthetic quality, but is rather the most fecund source of ugliness. If, in order to demonstrate this fact experimentally, one will take five small oblongs of plain neutral gray, say one by two inches in size, and varying progressively in tone from dark to light, and will place these oblongs side by side in every possible combination, it will be found that the only esthetically pleasing arrangement is one in which the tones vary progressively from one extreme to the other. Thus the eye is able to take in the whole series with the least effort, and the mind judges of the nature of each tone, perceives without effort the elements of likeness, and is content.

Orderly tone relationships give atmosphere and coherence and organic unity to a decorative treatment, and are as much as any other single factor responsible for its beauty and charm. In the treatment of background surfaces this orderly arrangement will work up-ward in an ascending scale, from the floor through the walls to the ceiling. Rooms in which this order is re-versed by using darker tones on the walls and ceiling and lighter tones on the floor have in general a top-heavy and disturbing appearance, because the mind through age-long processes of association has come instinctively to regard dark-colored forms and surfaces as heavier in weight than light-colored forms and surfaces. Accordingly it wants to see the darker masses below the horizontal center of the room for the sake of stability, with the darkest at the base; and the lighter masses above the horizontal center for the sake of buoyancy and lightness, with the lightest at the top. Thus in a carefully furnished room the three back-ground surfaces, floor, walls and ceiling, constitute three distinct zones, each characterized by a dominant tone quality. Within each of these zones there may be in good work wide contrast both in hue and in purity. There ought not, however, to be any very wide contrasts in tone, and in general we may say that the less the tranquillity of the zone atmosphere is broken by contrasts of tone, beyond the minimum essential to the proper outline and emphasis of form, the greater will be the chance of beauty in the room.

In practice the tranquillity of the floor zone will be disturbed by the use of a carpet or rug having a dark ground with light ornamental motives or a light ground with dark motives ; by a dark rug on a light floor or a light rug on a dark floor, with the effect strikingly intensified, of course, when several small rugs are used; and by the use of light furniture and upholstery fabrics on a dark floor covering or the converse. Similarly the tranquillity of the wall zone will be disturbed by the use of very light walls with dark surbase or dado, trim, or fireplace, or the converse ; or by dark hangings, pictures, cabinets or heavy chairs, or even small decorative accessories against markedly light walls, or the converse; while dark beams against a very light ceiling will have the same unesthetic result. This does not mean that tone contrasts within a given zone must be reduced to the extreme minimum ; but it does mean that such contrasts must be reduced, both in number and in intensity, to the point where effects of spottiness are eliminated, and the essential tone unity of the zone is instantly apparent.

It is to be noted that contrast can give interest, zest and animation through the opposition of unlike elements either irregularly and as it were capriciously, in which case it serves merely to accent or give snap, or regularly and rhythmically, in which case the contrast itself becomes an element of unity in the composition of the room. A simple illustration is afforded by the case of blue and gold draperies. These colors contrast sharply, both in hue and tone, and when used together they are certain to give an effect of snap and animation, the intensity of the effect depending on the purity of the hues and the area of the contrasting surfaces. In a blue and gold damask or velvet these colors are combined in a repeating design, and the regular and rhythmic recurrence of the same combinations of the two hues constitutes not only a contrast, but a powerful unifying factor in the room. If on the other hand plain blue hangings are trimmed with a gold galloon, or if plain gold hangings are outlined with a gimp or fringe of blue, the contrast serves merely as an accent. Of course this plain blue fringe would in practice be made to repeat a blue in the rug, or in some other important element on or near the floor, thus serving to unify the general scheme; but so far as the hangings alone are concerned its whole function is to set off and emphasize by contrast the peculiar quality of the plain gold.

In the design of rugs and furniture, as in the composition of the room as a whole, straight and curved lines are similarly combined in regular or rhythmic relationships, so that while the alternation of these lines is esthetically pleasing and stimulating, the total effect is nevertheless restful because unifying. But when these combinations of unlike outlines are not repeated or echoed—as when a round or elliptical mirror is placed between the straight supports of a straight-lined dresser or hung above a rectangular wall table or cabinet, or when a circular pillow is used on a big straight-lined davenport—no element of likeness is present and the contrast stands out in sharp relief.

While it is clearly impossible to formulate rules for the employment of contrast in decorative practice, because its use, like everything else in the art, must be governed by the requirements of fitness and by the dictates of individual feeling, a few considerations ought always to be borne in mind by the decorator. In general it must be remembered that contrast, whether of color, form or texture, is esthetically pleasing simply because it relieves the mind from the sense of too much likeness, or harmony, just as occasional changes in tempo, rhythm or force in music relieve the mind and add interest and charm. But in decoration, as in music, whenever the number of elements introduced for contrast becomes so great, or their opposition so sharp, that the mind fails to perceive without effort the predominant likenesses or unity of the composition its beauty is impaired or destroyed. Hence the number of such contrasts must in any case be limited. Moreover, contrast means a sense of activity; and while there must be some activity everywhere except in death, the amount of it desirable in a room to be occupied day in and day out is less than might be supposed. It will vary, of course, with the purpose of the room and the tastes, pursuits and health of the people who use the room, and with the size of the room itself. Activity always requires a clear space. Hence a degree and intensity of contrast agreeable in a large room would be intolerable in a small one.

However, the primary consideration must always be the motive or emotional significance of the decorative scheme. We have seen that the repose and tranquillity of a room vary directly with the emphasis placed upon the unity in its treatment, while its effect of cheerfulness and animation varies directly with the emphasis placed upon diversity. Thus relative uniformity, either in color or in outline, tends to emphasize the tranquillity, seriousness and dignity of a room, and this effect is enhanced by convergence of both color and outline; while relative absence of uniformity, as it results from the free employment of contrast, tends to emphasize the effect of gayety and animation. Few contrasts, and those of minimum intensity, give to a decorative treatment an effect of quiet and softness; while sharp contrasts tend to produce a powerful effect, in direct proportion to the size of the contrasting masses and the degree of their unlikeness. Sir Joshua Reynolds pointed out that the style of painting in which strong colors are opposed to one another in large masses is grander and more striking than one in which the colors are used in more nearly uniform intensity, or smaller areas, and tenderly blended ; and the same differences obviously result from varying degrees of emphasis in contrasts of shapes and sizes.

In practice the mere fact of contrast is very much less important than the intensity of the contrast, and this is particularly true of color. Red and green of one-fourth intensity or less form a contrast agreeable in large areas ; red and green of spectral purity would be intolerable in any except minute quantities. Colors may be contrasted in hue, purity, or tone, or in any two or all three of these constants simultaneously. One of these elements is sufficient for many contrasts, and for practical purposes two constitute the limit. Thus a blue and gold damask offers a contrast in both hue and tone. To make a difference in the purity of the hues would be altogether too much.

When contrast is employed purely for accent, or to give snap to the room, the decorator must be governed by the fact that every sharp contrast is in effect a royal invitation to the eye, which is bound by its nature to attend to a powerful stimulus. Accordingly he must first of all see to it that the element thrown into prominence by the contrast is in itself beautiful, or at least interesting, since to force into an unnecessary prominence an object or material intrinsically ugly or commonplace would be worse than folly. An ill-designed embroidered sofa cushion, for ex-ample, will remain fairly inoffensive if it is in the same color or tone as the sofa covering; but when an ugly light cushion is placed against a dark background, or when an ugly cushion of any tone is placed against its complementary hue, all its ugliness is brought out for all the world to see. Similarly a bad picture or, an ill-looking carved chair will be more noticeable against a plain wall than against one covered with an inconspicuous all-over design, and its visible ugliness will increase directly with the degree of contrast, in hue, tone and texture, between the object and its background.

Moreover, the decorator must see to it that the point of sharpest contrast coincides with the point of greatest decorative interest. A spirited picture, for example, will have its decorative importance enhanced by contrast with the wall. But if the picture be mounted on a very light mat and hung against a relatively dark wall the point of sharpest contrast will lie at the juncture of the wall and mat surfaces, and the decorative value of the picture will be diminished if not entirely lost. Finally, the contrasting element must be so placed as to satisfy the sense of balance. This matter is comparatively unimportant when the contrasting element is itself small and unimportant—as, for example, when a little purple vase is placed on a small satinwood table; but in the degree that the element is large or decoratively important it must be placed in a carefully balanced relation to the back-ground. Her Grace may wear a mouche anywhere from her eye to her chin, but her coronet must go on straight.

In conclusion we may note that here as everywhere in decoration wisdom lies in moderation. Contrast loses all its pleasantness and stimulating quality when used too freely. Too many elements introduced for contrast, and too sharp differences among them, will destroy the repose and mar the beauty of any room. And while the amount and the intensity of contrast is properly very largely a matter of individual feeling, it is certainly true of the individual, as of the race and the epoch, that the more highly one's taste is cultivated the less one welcomes strong contrasts.

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