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 colo

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.