top of page
Zcollector Blog: Design and Decor

Where design and craftsmanship artfully converge.

Zcollector Blog Cateogries.jpg


The Laws that Govern
the Arrangement of Colors 

Having considered some of the chief principles involved in the production of decorative design so far as "expression" goes, we come to notice that constant adjunct of form which has ever played an important part in all decorative schemes—namely, color.

MAY 15  2023, 10:05 PM
Color Wheel Chart.jpg

Form can exist independently of color, but it never has had any important development without the chromatic adjunct. From a consideration of history, we should be led to conclude that form alone is incapable of yielding such enrichments as satisfy; for no national system of decoration has ever existed in the absence of color. Mere outline-form may be good, but it is not satisfying; mere light and shade may be pleasing, but it is not all that we require. With form our very nature seems to demand color; and it is only when we get well-proportioned forms which are graceful, or noble, or vigorous, in combination with colors harmoniously arranged, that we are satisfied.


Possibly this feeling results from our contact with nature. The flowers appear in a thousand hues, and the hills are of ever-varying tints. What a barren world ours would appear, were the ground, the hills, the trees and the flowers, the sky and the waters all of one color! Form we should have, and that in its richest variety; light and shade we should have, with ever-varying intensity and change; but color would be gone. There would be no green to cheer, no blue to soothe, no red to excite; and, indeed, there would be a deadness, although the world be full of life, so appalling that we can scarcely conceive of it, and cannot feel it.


Color alone seems to have greater charms than form alone. A sunset is entrancing when the sky glows with radiant hues; the blue is almost lost in red, the yellow is as a sea of transparent gold, and the whole presents a variety and blending of tints which charm, and soothe, and lull to reverie; and yet all form is indistinct and obscure. If so charming when separate from form, what is color when properly combined with beautiful shapes?

There are few objects to which color may not be applied, and many articles which are now colorless might be colored with advantage. Our reasons for applying color to objects are twofold, and here, in fact, we see its true use. 1st. Color lends to objects a new charm—a charm which they would not possess if without it; and, 2nd, Color assists in the separation of objects and parts of objects, and thus gives assistance to form. These, then, are the two objects of color. Mark, first, it is to bestow on objects a charm, such as they could not have in its absence. In the hands of the man of knowledge it will do so—it will make an object lovely or lovable, but the mere application of color will not do this. Color may be so applied to objects as to render them infinitely more ugly than they were without it. I have seen many a bowl so colored at our potteries as to be much less satisfactory when colored d than when white—the coloring having marred, rather than improved, its general effect. Here, again, it is knowledge that we want. Knowledge will enable us to transmute base materials into works of marvelous beauty, worth their weight in gold. Knowledge, then, is the true philosopher's stone; for, we may almost say, if possessed by the artist it does enable him to transmute the baser metals into gold. But a little knowledge will not do this. In order that we produce true beauty, we require much knowledge, and this can only be got by constant and diligent labour, as I have before said; but the end to be gained is worth the plodding toil. Believe me, there is a pleasure in seeing your works develop as things of beauty, delighting all who see them—not the illiterate only, but also the educated thinker—such as words fail to express. Although there is no royal road to art-power, and although the road is long, and lies through much toil and many difficulties, yet as you proceed there is pleasure in feeling that one obstacle after another is cleared from your path, and at the end there is inexpressible satisfaction. The second object of color is that of assisting in the separation of form. If objects are placed near to one another, and these objects are all of the same color, the beholder will have much more difficulty in seeing the boundaries or terminations of each than he would were they variously colored; he would have to come nearer to them in order to see the limits of each, were all colored in the same manner, than he would were they variously colored; thus color assists in the separation of form. This quality which color has of separating forms is often lost sight of, and much confusion thereby results. If it is worth while to produce a decorative form, it is worth while to render it visible; and yet, how much ornament, and even good ornament, is lost to the eye through not being rendered manifest by color Color is the means by which we render form apparent.

Colors, when combined harmoniously, can please and satisfy, or according to the laws of harmony. What, then, are the laws which govern the arrangement of colors? and how are they to be applied? We shall endeavor to answer these questions by making a series of statements in axiomatic form, and then we shall enlarge upon these propositions.

General Considerations

1. Regarded from an art point of view, there are but three colors—i.e., blue, red, and yellow.

2. Blue, red, and yellow have been termed primary colors; they cannot be formed by the admixture of any

other colors.

3. All colors, other than blue, red, and yellow, result from the admixture of the primary colors.
4. By the admixture of blue and red, purple is formed; by the admixture of red and yellow, orange is formed; and by the admixture of yellow and blue, green is formed.
5. Colors resulting from the admixture of two primary colors are termed secondary: hence purple, orange, and green are secondary colors.
6. By the admixture of two secondary colors a tertiary color is formed: thus, purple and orange produce russet (the red tertiary); orange and green produce citrine (the yellow tertiary); and green and purple, olive (the blue tertiary); russet, citrine, and olive are the three tertiary colors.


7. When a light color is juxtaposed to a dark color the light color appears lighter than it is, and the dark
color darker.[10]

8. When colors are juxtaposed, they become influenced as to their hue. Thus, when red and green are placed side by side, the red appears redder than it actually is, and the green greener; and when blue and black are juxtaposed, the blue manifests but little alteration, while the black assumes an orange tint or becomes "rusty."

9. No one color can be viewed by the eye without another being created. Thus, if red is viewed, the eye creates for itself green, and this green is cast upon [33]whatever is near. If it views green, red is in like manner created and cast upon adjacent objects; thus, if red and green are juxtaposed, each creates the other in the eye, and the red created by the green is cast upon the red, and the green created by the red is cast upon the green; and the red and the green become improved by being juxtaposed. The eye also demands the presence of the three primary colors, either in their purity or in combination and if these are not present, whatever is deficient will be created in the eye, and this induced color will be cast upon whatever is near. Thus, when we view blue, orange, which is a mixture of red and yellow, is created in the eye, and this color is cast upon whatever is near; if black is in juxtaposition with the blue, this orange is cast upon it, and gives to it an orange tint, thus causing it to look "rusty."

10. In like manner, if we look upon red, green is formed in the eye, and is cast upon adjacent color; or, if we look upon yellow, purple is formed.


11. Harmony results from an agreeable contrast.


12. Color which perfectly harmonize improve one another to the utmost.


13. In order to perfect harmony, the three colors are necessary, either in their purity or in combination


14. Red and green combine to yield a harmony. Red is a primary color, and green, which is a secondary color consists of blue and yellow—the other two primary colors. Blue and orange also produce a harmony, and yellow and purple, for in each ease the three primary colors are present.


15. It has been found that the primary colors in perfect purity produce exact harmonies in the proportions of eight parts of blue, 5 of red, and 3 of yellow; that the secondary colors harmonize in the proportions of 13 of purple, 11 of green, and 8 of orange; and that the tertiary colors harmonize in the proportions of olive 24, russet 21, and citrine.

16. There are, however, subtleties of harmony which it is difficult to understand.


17. The rarest harmonies frequently lie close on the verge of discord.


18. Harmony of colour is, in many respects, analogous to harmony of musical sounds.

Quality of Colors

19. Blue is a cold color, and appears to recede from the eye.


20. Red is a warm color, and is exciting; it remains stationary as to distance.


21. Yellow is the color most nearly allied to light; it appears to advance towards the spectator.


22. At twilight blue appears much lighter than it is, red much darker, and yellow slightly darker. By ordinary gaslight blue becomes darker, red brighter, and yellow lighter. By this artificial light a pure yellow appears lighter than white itself, when viewed in contrast with certain other colors.


23. By certain combinations color may make glad or depress, convey the idea of purity, richness, or poverty, or may affect the mind in any desired manner, as does music.



24. When a color is placed on a gold ground, it should be outlined with a darker shade of its own color.


25. When a gold ornament falls on a colored ground, it should be outlined with black.


26. When an ornament falls on a ground which is in direct harmony with it, it must be outlined with a lighter tint of its own color. Thus, when a red ornament falls on a green ground, the ornament must be outlined with a lighter red.

27. When the ornament and the ground are in two tints of the same color, if the ornament is darker than the ground, it will require outlining with a still darker tint of the same color; but if lighter than the ground no outline will be required.

Analytical Tables of Color

When commencing my studies both in science and art, I found great advantage from reducing all facts to a tabular form so far as possible, and this mode of study I would recommend to others. To me this method appears to have great advantages, for by it we see at a glance what otherwise is difficult to understand; if carefully done, it becomes an analysis of work; and by preparing these tabular arrangements of facts the subject becomes impressed on the mind, and the relation of one fact to another, or of one part of a scheme to another, is seen.


The following analytical tables will illustrate many of the facts stated in our propositions. The figures which follow the colors represent the proportions in which they harmonize:—

Analytical Tables of Color.jpg

This latter table shows at a glance how each of the secondary and tertiary colors is formed, and the proportions in which they harmonize. It also shows why the three tertiary colors are called respectively the yellow tertiary, the red tertiary, and the blue tertiary, for into each tertiary two equivalents of one primary enter, and one equivalent of each of the other primaries. Thus, in citrine we find two equivalents of yellow, and one each of red and blue; hence it is the yellow tertiary. In russet we find two equivalents of red, and one each of blue and of yellow; and in olive two of blue, and one each of red and yellow. Hence they are respectively the red and blue tertiaries.

Diagrams of Harmony_the colors which form a harmony_ blue, red, and yellow.jpg

Figs 24 and 25 are diagrams of harmony. I have connected in the centre, by three similar lines, the colors which form a harmony; thus, blue, red, and yellow harmonize when placed together. Purple, green, and orange also harmonize(I have connected them by dotted lines in the first of the two diagrams). But when two colors are to produce a harmony, the one will be a primary color and the other a secondary formed of the other two primary colors (for the presence of the three primary colors is necessary to a harmony), or the one will be a secondary, and the other a tertiary color formed of the two remaining secondary colors. Such harmonies I have placed opposite to each other; thus blue, a primary, harmonizes with orange, a secondary; yellow with purple; and red with green; and the secondary color is placed between the two primary colors of which it is formed; thus, orange is formed of red and yellow, between which it stands; green, of blue and yellow; and purple, of blue and red. In the second of the two diagrams we see that purple, green, and orange produce a harmony, so do olive, russet, and citrine. We also see that purple and citrine harmonize, and green and russet, and orange and olive.


Continuing this diagrammatic form of illustration, we may set forth the quantities in which the various colours harmonize: thus:—

bottom of page