Study of Color


ALTHOUGH Colour has for ages possessed a great attraction for mankind, and although the love of Colour is still most marked among children, it is remarkable that so little should have been done to encourage the study of it. The student, indeed, finds his path beset with difficulties. By one school he is told to study Nature, by another to follow Tradition, while a third warns him to trust to his own instinct. Now, although there is a certain foundation of truth for each type of advice, it is still true that a student may be greatly helped by being set upon a path which bears the marks of both Nature and Tradition, yet in which no man can travel far unless he will also trust himself.
A master of Colour, like a master of words, is born, not made, yet who would argue that a child should not be taught to speak ? Even so, it seems absurd not to teach a student the A B C of Colour, if we can but find what we should teach.
The great difficulty is the first step. We take our colour-box and find in it a series of tints, all of which obviously bear some relation to one another, but the endeavour to discover that relation is commonly doomed to failure. Experiment with the colour-box will, by patience and method, teach us what a vast range of tints we can make by mixing our ” paints/’ but we must remember that, after all, ” paint ” is not ” colour,” and that while the mixing of paints means loss of light, the mingling of colours means a gain of light. Moreover, experience teaches that knowledge of the colour-box is not sufficient by itself as a basis whereon to found a theory of colour.
We can easily demonstrate that the mixture of blue and yellow produces green, or that purple results from mixing crimson and blue,but although we can show how green and purple tints can be made, we do not show what relation green and purple bear to one another.
One of the first?and also one of the greatest ?difficulties which the student meets is that two tints which are quite pleasant when placed side by side in one order of strength become most unpleasant when that order of strength is reversed. Thus a full tint of red side by side with a deep purple will appear rich and good, but if the same red be placed by a light purple the result will be harsh and unpleasing. Many other pairs of tints may be tested together and found to yield the same result, so that at once it becomes evident that this question of relative strength must be seriously considered in ill cases of harmonious arrangement. Experience proves that without a knowledge of the effect of relative strength no satisfactory theory of colour can be put forward. This reason alone is enough to show the weakness of the old yellow, red, and blue theory, which takes no account of relative strengths.


IT is to Rood’s careful investigation that we owe the discovery of a sound basis on which to found a workable theory of colour. Deduced from the order of colours in the spectrum, Rood’s table of the natural order of colours is not a mere haphazard guess at the truth, for it stands the test of experiment. Briefly, this table indicates that yellow is the lightest of colours and violet the darkest, that one may travel between these extremes by two roads, i.e., by way of red, or by way of blue, and that the natural order is for orange to be deeper than yellow, red deeper than orange, and so on down to violet, while, similarly, green is deeper than yellow, blue deeper than green, and violet deeper than blue.

Rood’s Table of the Natural Order of Colours.

Yellow (nearest to white light). Orange.
Purple. Green.
Violet (nearest to black).

The student is recommended not to take this table on trust, but to test it thoroughly for himself. The test is to take the colours in pairs, e.g.., yellow and orange, orange and red, red and crimson, and so on, working down both sides of the table. The pairs should be taken first in their natural order, i.e., yellow lighter than orange, and orange lighter than red; afterwards the order should be reversed, with orange lighter than yellow, and red lighter than orange. In both cases the test should be carried out on a fairly large scale ; indeed, the test must be tried with a good area of each tint if the effect is to be judged fairly. If, when the order is reversed, one of the two tints is arranged as a small spot or line against a mass of the other tint, an entirely new problem is presented, and this is fully dealt with under the heading of “Discord”


The result will show that, in the natural order, the colours look rich and tend to enhance each other’s value; in reverse order, the one tint appears thin and poor, while the other looks dirty. The effect of reversing the order is yet more marked when one arranges such pairs as pale violet and dark orange, deep red and pale blue, dark yellow-green and light purple.
One can hardly overestimate the value of this natural order. One has only to turn over the piles of badly-coloured patterns in many of our shops in order to realize that a natural law cannot be ignored or defied with impunity.
The great objection offered to such a law is that it must kill, or at least cramp, originality. Yet the engineer and the painter both know that in the use of their materials they must observe certain limitations, and in so doing they find their opportunity of being original. Now, if this order of colours be indeed a natural order, we ought to find it in natural colour-schemes? in the ordinary landscape, for example, in flowers and fruit, in birds and butterflies. It must be at once admitted that the natural order is not always easy to trace, but this admission must also be qualified, for it is equally true that the more searching our investigation, the more certainly will the natural order be found.
There are two main reasons for the difficulties which we are likely to encounter : first, that the natural order is, after all, only one of a group of natural laws which act together, and second, that many natural schemes are very complex. A landscape frequently presents the latter difficulty, as there will be subsidiary schemes for earth and sky, besides minor schemes for various passages of cloud and for various sections of earth. In the sky alone one may see several minor schemes at the same moment, owing to the presence of several groups of clouds at different altitudes. The colour of the high cirrus is so delicate that it is very difficult to trace, but, when traceable, the gradations follow the natural order. The alto-clouds often show colours of singular purity, ranging from cream to rose and so to purple; but, though so pure and delicate, the gradation evidently proceeds in order, the colours deepening from yellow to purple. The lower stratus and cumulus clouds commonly give the deeper notes of warm reds and purples. Sunset is probably the best time for following the order of colours ; then may be seen yellow turning to orange, orange to red, red to crimson, and crimson to purple, the first of each pair being the lighter. In the same way the open sky will change from yellow to green and from green to blue, the yellow being the lightest and the blue the darkest.
After examining the more obvious colours of the sky, investigation should proceed through the varieties of ” grey ” clouds, when it will be found that though the tints are harder to assign to their places because their foundation colours are so broken, yet it will be possible to distinguish yellow-greys, red, rose, purple, or violet-greys, as well as those based upon tints of green or blue, and these greys will be found to follow the order.
In the case of trees the young foliage is light and yellowish, the change to green being accompanied by a deepening of the colour. When turning yellow in autumn the foliage becomes lighter. Many kinds of leaves show variations from yellow to red and from crimson to purple, and the yellow is usually lighter than red, the crimson lighter than the purple.
The transition from the colour of a flower to that of its stalk is marked by a close adherence to the same order. Thus a red flower commonly becomes lighter and yellower towards its calix, while the yellow deepens and changes into green upon the stalk. In the blossoms themselves when yellow and red, red and purple, rose and blue, or yellow and blue come together, they follow the rule. In roses, carnations, and nasturtiums, for instance, when red and yellow come together the red will be the darker, while crimson will be darker than red. In fuchsias, petunias, and clematis, purple is darker than crimson.
The colours of most fruits follow the same order. Fine examples may be seen in the berries of either of the bryonies or of the winter cherry; green becomes lighter and yellower, yellow grows darker to orange, and orange to red. In the case of damsons and the darker plums the red tints deepen into purple, but the ” bloom ” which inclines to blue is lighter than the deep purple of the skin.
Oranges and lemons, green at first, become lighter as they become yellower; melons, pumpkins, and vegetable marrows do the same.
Among the more brilliantly coloured birds the natural order is often more difficult to follow, because the colours are so often broken up into very small portions; but the principle can be traced in many instances when the main colours occupy a considerable area, proportionately to the whole surface of the bird.

The following examples are particularly clear, and the order of the colours can be easily traced :
Yellow and red in the ruby and topaz humming-bird ; green-gold, deep red-purple, and deepest violet in the emerald-throated humming-bird ; crimson and purple-red in the velvet tanager ; pale green, purple, and deep ultramarine in the long-tailed roller ; orange, dull green, and dark greyish ultramarine in the blue-tailed roller ; yellow and olive-green in the great tit; yellow, greenish blue (turquoise) and violet-blue in the black and blue titmouse ; yellow-green and full blue in the blue and black creeper ; green, blue-green, green-blue, blue, and ultramarine in the bee-eater ; green and blue-green in the black-headed grigri; greenish blue and purple-blue in the blue creeper. The foregoing examples include the whole range of colours from yellow to violet through red and through green.
The student will doubtless find numerous instances of small patches of colour in which the natural order is reversed, but it must be noted that these patches are always small, and never occupy the greater part of the surface. The reason for their use will be dealt with later under the head of ” Discord.”
Not many of the shell families show ranges of full colour; more often the tints are broken or the colours are split up into a fine mosaic, but the brilliant pectinidx make up for any deficiencies in this respect. They show a gorgeous range of tints, turning from yellow to orange and from red to purple, always in the true order. The spondylidae, or thorny oysters, show similar ranges of colour in very lovely gradations.
After considering the evidence in Nature of a regular order of colours, one may well ask whether there is any evidence of a preference for such an order in the colour-schemes used in those countries in which the feeling for beautiful colour is peculiarly strong. An examination of Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese colour-schemes shows that the natural order is observed to a quite remarkable degree, and that the deviations from it are usually easy to explain. Investigation of the best European colour-schemes yields the same result, so that natural law and natural taste appear to coincide to a wonderful degree.
Were there no hindrances to the development of natural taste we should probably use beautiful colour instinctively, but under the conditions of modern life anything like natural development is so difficult that special study must be given to every subject in order to find a true starting-point. A nation devoted to trade and manufactures, as a means of gain, must cultivate the idea of colour, and study it thoroughly, or the very sense of colour will die.
The possession of a well-defined basis for the systematic study of colour is of very great importance to all those trades and manufactures in which more than one colour is employed in one piece of material or upon one surface.
The natural order of colours supplies such a basis, and the principles which can be deduced from it provide opportunity for an endless series of well-ordered experiments on well-defined lines.
Three great principles which can be deduced from the natural order are Harmony, Contrast, and Discord. All three terms are in common use, though their meanings vary greatly. The meanings given to them, in this book are set out in the following chapters.