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Colour With Reference To Light

In choosing colour for walls and ceilings, it is most necessary to
consider the special laws which govern its application to house

The tint of any particular room should be chosen not only with reference
to personal liking, but first of all, to the quantity and quality of
light which pervades it. A north room will require warm and bright
treatment, warm reds and golden browns, or pure gold colours.
Gold-colour used in sash curtains will give an effect of perfect
sunshine in a dark and shadowy room, but the same treatment in a room
fronting the south would produce an almost insupportable brightness.

I will illustrate the modifications made necessary in tint by different
exposure to light, by supposing that some one member of the family
prefers yellow to all other colours, one who has enough of the chameleon
in her nature to feel an instinct to bask in sunshine. I will also
suppose that the room most conveniently devoted to the occupation of
this member has a southern exposure. If yellow must be used in her room,
the quality of it should be very different from that which could be
properly and profitably used in a room with a northern exposure, and it
should differ not only in intensity, but actually in tint. If it is
necessary, on account of personal preference, to use yellow in a sunny
room, it should be lemon, instead of ochre or gold-coloured yellow,
because the latter would repeat sunlight. There are certain shades of
yellow, where white has been largely used in the mixture, which are
capable of greenish reflections. This is where the white is of so pure a
quality as to suggest blue, and consequently under the influence of
yellow to suggest green. We often find yellow dyes in silks the shadows
of which are positive fawn colour or even green, instead of orange as we
might expect; still, even with modifications, yellow should properly be
reserved for sunless rooms, where it acts the part almost of the blessed
sun itself in giving cheerfulness and light. Going from a sun-lighted
atmosphere, or out of actual sunlight into a yellow room, one would miss
the sense of shelter which is so grateful to eyes and senses a little
dazzled by the brilliance of out-of-door lights; whereas a room darkened
or shaded by a piazza, or somewhat chilled by a northern exposure and
want of sun, would be warmed and comforted by tints of gold-coloured

Interiors with a southern exposure should be treated with cool, light
colours, blues in various shades, water-greens, and silvery tones which
will contrast with the positive yellow of sunlight.

It is by no means a merely arbitrary rule. Colours are actually warm or
cold in temperature, as well as in effect upon the eye or the
imagination, in fact the words cover a long-tested fact. I remember
being told by a painter of his placing a red sunset landscape upon the
flat roof of a studio building to dry, and on going to it a few hours
afterward he found the surface of it so warm to the touch--so sensibly
warmer than the gray and blue and green pictures around it--that he
brought a thermometer to test it, and found it had acquired and retained
heat. It was actually warmer by degrees than the gray and blue pictures
in the same sun exposure.

We instinctively wear warm colours in winter and dispense with them in
summer, and this simple fact may explain the art which allots what we
call warm colour to rooms without sun. When we say warm colours, we mean
yellows, reds with all their gradations, gold or sun browns, and dark
browns and black. When we say cool colours--whites, blues, grays, and
cold greens--for greens may be warm or cold, according to their
composition or intensity. A water-green is a cold colour, so is a pure
emerald green, so also a blue-green; while an olive, or a gold-green
comes into the category of warm colours. This is because it is a
composite colour made of a union of warm and cold colours; the brown and
yellow in its composition being in excess of the blue; as pink also,
which is a mixture of red and white; and lavender, which is a mixture of
red, white, and blue, stand as intermediate between two extremes.

Having duly considered the effect of light upon colour, we may
fearlessly choose tints for every room according to personal preferences
or tastes. If we like one warm colour better than another, there is no
reason why that one should not predominate in every room in the house
which has a shadow exposure. If we like a cold colour it should be used
in many of the sunny rooms.

I believe we do not give enough importance to this matter of personal
liking in tints. We select our friends from sympathy. As a rule, we do
not philosophise much about it, although we may recognise certain
principles in our liking; it is those to whom our hearts naturally open
that we invite in and have joy in their companionship, and we might
surely follow our likings in the matter of colour, as well as in
friendship, and thereby add much to our happiness. Curiously enough we
often speak of the colour of a mind--and I once knew a child who
persisted in calling people by the names of colours; not the colour of
their clothes, but some mind-tint which he felt. "The blue lady" was his
especial favourite, and I have no doubt the presence or absence of that
particular colour made a difference in his content all the days of his

The colour one likes is better for tranquillity and enjoyment--more
conducive to health; and exercises an actual living influence upon
moods. For this reason, if no other, the colour of a room should never
be arbitrarily prescribed or settled for the one who is to be its
occupant. It should be as much a matter of nature as the lining of a
shell is to the mussel, or as the colour of the wings of a butterfly.

In fact the mind which we cannot see may have a colour of its own, and
it is natural that it should choose to dwell within its own influence.

We do not know why we like certain colours, but we do, and let that
suffice, and let us live with them, as gratefully as we should for more
explainable ministry.

If colours which we like have a soothing effect upon us, those which we
do not like are, on the other hand, an unwelcome influence. If a woman
says in her heart, I hate green, or red, or I dislike any one colour,
and then is obliged to live in its neighbourhood, she will find herself
dwelling with an enemy. We all know that there are colours of which a
little is enjoyable when a mass would be unendurable. Predominant
scarlet would be like close companionship with a brass band, but a note
of scarlet is one of the most valuable of sensations. The gray
compounded of black and white would be a wet blanket to all bubble of
wit or spring of fancy, but the shadows of rose colour are gray,
pink-tinted it is true; indeed the shadow of pink used to be known by
the name of ashes of roses. I remember seeing once in Paris--that home
of bad general decoration--a room in royal purples; purple velvet on
walls, furniture, and hangings. One golden Rembrandt in the middle of a
long wall, and a great expanse of ochre-coloured parquetted floor were
all that saved it from the suggestion of a royal tomb. As it was, I left
the apartment with a feeling of treading softly as when we pass through
a door hung with crape. Vagaries of this kind are remediable when they
occur in cravats, or bonnets, or gloves--but a room in the wrong colour!
Saints and the angels preserve us!

The number, size, and placing of the windows will greatly affect the
intensity of colour to be used. It must always be remembered that any
interior is dark as compared with out-of-doors, and that in the lightest
room there will be dark corners or spaces where the colour chosen as
chief tint will seem much darker than it really is. A paper or textile
chosen in a good light will look several shades darker when placed in
large unbroken masses or spaces upon the wall, and a fully furnished
room will generally be much darker when completed than might be expected
in planning it. For this reason, in choosing a favourite tint, it is
better on many accounts to choose it in as light a shade as one finds
agreeable. It can be repeated in stronger tones in furniture or in small
and unimportant furnishings of the room, but the wall tone should never
be deeper than medium in strength, at the risk of having all the light
absorbed by the colour, and of losing a sense of atmosphere in the room.
There is another reason for this, which is that many colours are
agreeable, even to their lovers, only in light tones. The moment they
get below medium they become insistent, and make themselves of too much
importance. In truth colour has qualities which are almost personal, and
is well worth studying in all its peculiarities, because of its power to
affect our happiness.

The principles of proper use of colour in house interiors are not
difficult to master. It is unthinking, unreflective action which makes
so many unrestful interiors of homes. The creator of a home should
consider, in the first place, that it is a matter as important as
climate, and as difficult to get away from, and that the first shades
of colour used in a room upon walls or ceiling, must govern everything
else that enters in the way of furnishing; that the colour of walls
prescribes that which must be used in floors, curtains, and furniture.
Not that these must necessarily be of the same tint as walls, but that
wall-tints must govern the choice.

All this makes it necessary to take first steps carefully, to select for
each room the colour which will best suit the taste, feeling, or bias of
the occupant, always considering the exposure of the room and the use of

After the relation of colour to light is established--with personal
preferences duly taken into account--the next law is that of gradation.
The strongest, and generally the purest, tones of colour belong
naturally at the base, and the floor of a room means the base upon which
the scheme of decoration is to be built.

The carpet, or floor covering, should carry the strongest tones. If a
single tint is to be used, the walls must take the next gradation, and
the ceiling the last. These gradations must be far enough removed from
each other in depth of tone to be quite apparent, but not to lose their
relation. The connecting grades may appear in furniture covering and
draperies, thus giving different values in the same tone, the relation
between them being perfectly apparent. These three masses of related
colour are the groundwork upon which one can play infinite variations,
and is really the same law upon which a picture is composed. There are
foreground, middle-distance, and sky--and in a properly coloured room,
the floors, walls, and ceiling bear the same relation to each other as
the grades of colour in a picture, or in a landscape.

Fortunately we keep to this law almost by instinct, and yet I have seen
a white-carpeted floor in a room with a painted ceiling of considerable
depth of colour. Imagine the effect where this rule of gradation or
ascending scale is reversed. A tinted floor of cream colour, or even
white, and a ceiling as deep in colour as a landscape. One feels as if
they themselves were reversed, and standing upon their heads. Certainly
if we ignore this law we lose our sense of base or foundation, and
although we may not know exactly why, we shall miss the restfulness of a
properly constructed scheme of decoration.

The rule of gradation includes also that of massing of colour. In all
simple treatment of interiors, whatever colour is chosen should be
allowed space enough to establish its influence, broadly and freely, and
here again we get a lesson from nature in the massing of colour. It
should not be broken into patches and neutralised by divisions, but used
in large enough spaces to dominate, or bring into itself or its own
influence all that is placed in the room. If this rule is disregarded
every piece of furniture unrelated to the whole becomes a spot, it has
no real connection with the room, and the room itself, instead of a
harmonious and delightful influence, akin to that of a sun-flushed dawn
or a sunset sky, is like a picture where there is no composition, or a
book where incident is jumbled together without relation to the story.
In short, placing of colour in large uniform masses used in gradation is
the groundwork of all artistic effect in interiors. As I have said, it
is the same rule that governs pictures, the general tone may be green or
blue, or a division of each, but to be a perfect and harmonious view,
every detail must relate to one or both of these tints.

In formulating thus far the rules for use of colour in rooms, we have
touched upon three principles which are equally binding in interiors,
whether of a cottage or a palace; the first is that of colour in
relation to light, the second of colour in gradation, and the third of
colour in masses.

A house in which walls and ceilings are simply well coloured or covered,
has advanced very far toward the home which is the rightful endowment of
every human being. The variations of treatment, which pertain to more
costly houses, the application of design in borders and frieze spaces,
walls, wainscots, and ceilings, are details which will probably call for
artistic advice and professional knowledge, since in these things it is
easy to err in misapplied decoration. The advance from perfect
simplicity to selected and beautiful ornament marks not only the degree
of cost but of knowledge which it is in the power of the house-owner to
command. The elaboration which is the privilege of more liberal means
and the use of artistic experience in decoration on a larger scale.

The smaller house shares in the advantage of beautiful colour, correct
principles, and appropriate treatment equally with the more costly. The
variations do not falsify principles.

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