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Colour In Houses

"Heaven gives us of its colour, for our joy,
Hues which have words and speak to ye of heaven."

Although the very existence of a house is a matter of construction, its
general interior effect is almost entirely the result of colour
treatment and careful and cultivated selection of accessories.

Colour in the house includes much that means furniture, in the way of
carpets, draperies, and all the modern conveniences of civilization, but
as it precedes and dictates the variety of all these things from the
authoritative standpoint of wall treatment, it is well to study its laws
and try to reap the full benefit of its influence.

As far as effect is concerned, the colour of a room creates its
atmosphere. It may be cheerful or sad, cosy or repellent according to
its quality or force. Without colour it is only a bare canvas, which
might, but does not picture our lives.

We understand many of the properties of colour, and have unconsciously
learned some of its laws;--but what may be called the science of
colour has never been formulated. So far as we understand it, its
principles correspond curiously to those of melodious sound. It is as
impossible to produce the best effect from one tone or colour, as to
make a melody upon one note of the harmonic scale; it is skilful
variation of tone, the gradation or even judicious opposition of tint
which gives exquisite satisfaction to the eye. In music, sequence
produces this effect upon the ear, and in colour, juxtaposition and
gradation upon the eye. Notes follow notes in melody as shade follows
shade in colour. We find no need of even different names for the
qualities peculiar to the two; scale--notes--tones--harmonies--the words
express effects common to colour as well as to music, but colour has
this advantage, that its harmonies can be fixed, they do not die with
the passing moment; once expressed they remain as a constant and
ever-present delight.

Notes of the sound-octave have been gathered by the musicians from
widely different substances, and carefully linked in order and sequence
to make a harmonious scale which may be learned; but the painter,
conscious of colour-harmonies, has as yet no written law by which he can
produce them.

The "born colourist" is one who without special training, or perhaps in
spite of it, can unerringly combine or oppose tints into compositions
which charm the eye and satisfy the sense. Even among painters it is by
no means a common gift. It is almost more rare to find a picture
distinguished for its harmony and beauty of colour, than to see a room
in which nothing jars and everything works together for beauty. It seems
strange that this should be a rarer personal gift than the musical
sense, since nature apparently is far more lavish of her lessons for the
eye than for the ear; and it is curious that colour, which at first
sight seems a more apparent and simple fact than music, has not yet been
written. Undoubtedly there is a colour scale, which has its sharps and
flats, its high notes and low notes, its chords and discords, and it is
not impossible that in the future science may make it a means of
regulated and written harmonies:--that some master colourist who has
mechanical and inventive genius as well, may so arrange them that they
can be played by rule; that colour may have its Mozart or
Beethoven--its classic melodies, its familiar tunes. The musician, as I
have said--has gathered his tones from every audible thing in
nature--and fitted and assorted and built them into a science; and why
should not some painter who is also a scientist take the many variations
of colour which lie open to his sight, and range and fit and combine,
and write the formula, so that a child may read it?

We already know enough to be very sure that the art is founded upon
laws, although they are not thoroughly understood. Principles of masses,
spaces, and gradations underlie all accidental harmonies of
colour;--just as in music, the simple, strong, under-chords of the bass
must be the ground for all the changes and trippings of the upper

It is easy, if one studies the subject, to see how the very likeness of
these two esthetic forces illustrate the laws of each,--in the
principles of relation, gradation, and scale.

Until very recently the relation of colour to the beauty of a house
interior was quite unrecognised. If it existed in any degree of
perfection it was an accident, a result of the softening and beautifying
effect of time, or of harmonious human living. Where it existed, it was
felt as a mysterious charm belonging to the home; something which
pervaded it, but had no separate being; an attractive ghost which
attached itself to certain houses, followed certain people, came by
chance, and was a mystery which no one understood, but every one
acknowledged. Now we know that this something which distinguished
particular rooms, and made beautiful particular houses, was a definite
result of laws of colour accidentally applied.

To avail ourselves of this influence upon the moods and experiences of
life is to use a power positive in its effects as any spiritual or
intellectual influence. It gives the kind of joy we find in nature, in
the golden-green of light under tree-branches, or the mingled green and
gray of tree and rock shadows, or the pearl and rose of sunrise and
sunset. We call the deep content which results from such surroundings
the influence of nature, and forget to name the less spiritual, the more
human condition of well-being which comes to us in our homes from being
surrounded with something which in a degree atones for lack of nature's

It is a different well-being, and lacks the full tide of electric
enjoyment which comes from living for the hour under the sky and in the
breadths of space, but it atones by substituting something of our own
invention, which surprises us by its compensations, and confounds us by
its power.

Next: The Law Of Appropriateness

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