Arts and Crafts Essays/Colour
IT is not unusual to hear said of textiles and embroideries, "I like soft quiet colouring; such and such is too bright." This assertion is both right and wrong; it shows an instinctive pleasure in harmony combined with ignorance of technique. To begin with, colour cannot be too bright in itself; if it appears so, it is the skill of the craftsman that is at fault. It will be noted in a fine piece of work that far from blazing with colour in a way to disturb the eye, its general effect is that of a subdued glow; and yet, on considering the different shades of the colours used, they are found to be in themselves of the brightest the dyer can produce. Thus I have seen in an old Persian rug light and dark blue flowers and orange leaves outlined with turquoise blue on a strong red ground, a combination that sounds daring, and yet nothing could be more peaceful in tone than the beautiful and complicated groups of colours here displayed. Harmony, then, produces this repose, which is demanded instinctively, purity and crispness being further obtained by the quality of the colours used.
Thus in blues, use the shades that are only obtained satisfactorily by indigo dye, with such modifications as slightly "greening" with yellow when a green-blue is wanted, and so forth. The pure blue of indigo, neither slaty nor too hot and red on the one hand, nor tending to a coarse "peacock" green-blue on the other, is perfect in all its tones, and of all colours the safest to use in masses. Its modifications to purple on one side and green-blue on the other are also useful, though to be employed with moderation. There are endless varieties of useful reds, from pink, salmon, orange, and scarlet, to blood-red and deep purple-red, obtained by different dyes and by different processes of dyeing. Kermes, an insect dye, gives a very beautiful and permanent colour, rather scarlet. Cochineal, also an insect dye, gives a red, rather inferior, but useful for mixed shades, and much used on silk, of which madder and kermes are apt to destroy the gloss, the former a good deal, the latter slightly. Madder, a vegetable dye, "yields on wool a deep-toned blood-red, somewhat bricky and tending to scarlet. On cotton and linen all imaginable shades of red, according to the process." Of the shades into which red enters, avoid over-abundant use of warm orange or scarlet, which are the more valuable (especially the latter) the more sparingly used; there is a dusky orange and a faint clear bricky scarlet, sometimes met with in old work, that do not need this reservation, being quiet colours of impure yet beautiful tone. Clear, full yellow, fine in itself, also loses its value if too plentifully used, or lacking due relief by other colours. The pure colour is neither reddish and hot in tone, nor greenish and sickly. It is very abundant, for example, in Persian silk embroidery, also in Chinese, and again in Spanish and Italian work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The best and most permanent yellow dye, especially valuable on silk, is weld or "wild mignonette."
Next to blue, green seems the most natural colour to live with, and the most restful to the eye and brain; yet it is curious to those not familiar with the ins and outs of dyeing that it should be so difficult to obtain through ordinary commercial channels a full, rich, permanent green, neither muddy yellow nor coarse bluish. A dyer who employed old-fashioned dye-stuffs and methods would, however, tell us that the greens of commerce are obtained by messes, and not by dyes, the only method for obtaining good shades being that of dyeing a blue of the depth required in the indigo-vat, and afterwards "greening" it with yellow, with whatever modifications are needed. Three sets of greens will be found useful for needlework, full yellow-greens of two or three shades, grayish-greens, and blue-greens. Of these, the shades tending to grayish-green are the most manageable in large masses. There is also an olive-green that is good, if not too dark and brown, when it becomes a nondescript, and as such to be condemned.
Walnut (the roots or the husks or the nut) and catechu (the juice of a plant) are the most reliable brown dye-stuffs, giving good rich colour. The best black, by the bye, formerly used, consisted of the darkest indigo shade the material would take, dipped afterwards in the walnut root dye.
This hasty enumeration of dye-stuffs gives an idea of those principally used until this century, but now very rarely, since the reign of Aniline. Yet they give the only really pure and permanent colours known, not losing their value by artificial light, and very little and gradually fading through centuries of exposure to sunlight. It would be pleasant if in purchasing silk or cloth one had not to pause and consider "will it fade?" meaning not "will it fade in a hundred, or ten, or three years?" but "will it fade and be an unsightly rag this time next month?" I cannot see that Aniline has done more for us than this.
Colour can be treated in several different ways: by distinctly light shades, whether few or many, on a dark ground, which treatment lends itself to great variety and effect; or by dark on a light ground, not so rich or satisfying in effect; or again, by colour placed on colour of equal tone, as it were a mosaic or piecing together of colours united, or "jointed," by outlining round the various members of the design. Black on white, or white on white, a mere drawing of a design on the material, scarcely comes under the head of Colour, though, as aforesaid, some very beautiful work has been done in this way.
As regards method of colouring, it is not very possible to give much indication of what to use and what to avoid, it being greatly a matter of practice, and somewhat of instinct, how to unite colour into beautiful and complex groups. A few hints for and against certain combinations may perhaps be given: for instance, avoid placing a blue immediately against a green of nearly the same tone; an outline of a different colour disposes of this difficulty, but even so, blue and green for equally leading colours should be avoided. Again, red and yellow, if both of a vivid tone, will need a softening outline; also, I think, red and green if at all strong; avoid cold green in contact with misty blue-green, which in itself is rather a pretty colour: the warning seems futile, but I have seen these colours used persistently together, and do not like the resulting undecided gray tone. A cold strong green renders service sometimes, notably for placing against a clear brilliant yellow, which is apt to deaden certain softer greens. Brown, when used, should be chosen carefully, warm in tint, but not hot; avoid the mixture of brown and yellow, often seen in "Art Depôts," but not in nature, an unfortunate groping after the picturesque, as brown wants cooling down, and to marry it to a flaming yellow is not the way to do it. Black should be used very sparingly indeed, though by no means banished from the palette. Blue and pink, blue and red, with a little tender green for relief, are perfectly safe combinations for the leading colours in a piece of work; again, yellow and green, or yellow, pink, and green, make a delightfully fresh and joyous show. There is a large coverlet to be seen at the South Kensington Museum (in the Persian gallery) which is worked in these colours, all very much the same bright tone, the centre being green and yellow and pink, and the several borders the same, with the order and proportion altered to make a variety. In recalling bright colouring like this, one is reminded of Chaucer and his unfailing delight in gay colours, which he constantly brings before us in describing garden, woodland, or beflowered gown. As—
"Everich tree well from his fellow grewe
With branches broad laden with leaves newe
That sprongen out against the sonne sheene
Some golden red and some a glad bright grene."
Or, again, the Squire's dress in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales—
"Embrouded was he, as it were a mede
Alle ful of freshe floures, white and rede."
- For notes on the dyer's art and the nature of dye stuffs, see William Morris's essay on "Dyeing as an Art," p. 196.
- William Morris, "Dyeing as an Art."