Letters From Gene
A Study of Color and Design by Gene Wright
Originally published in Needle
Pointers, Volume XI, Number 4, Fall 1983
Part 1 of 5
Editor's Note: This exciting study of color and design will be presented in eight articles which will span two years in Needle Pointers. Gene is presenting this study in an easy and relaxed manner by writing letters to a mythical "Nellie Quickstitch" in the hopes that beginner as well as seasoned stitchers will feel comfortable with this needlework field that often seems formidable. Gene Wright, of Indianapolis, Indiana, is well qualified to author this study. Gene earned her certificate for the 5-year program at John Herron Art Institute where she studied Sculpture, Design and Color, Painting, Foundry Procedures and Techniques, and Art Leatherwork Composition. She holds Teacher Certification in Levels I, II and Honors from the Valentine Museum and serves on the Counseling Staff of the museum. She has taught the Valentine Museum's Correspondence Course in Design and Color since 1982 and has been on the Assembly for Embroiderers faculty. She is a Consultant in Needlework to the Curator of Textiles, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Photographic Documentor of Textiles for that group. We are grateful to Gene for sharing her expertise in the field of Color and Design.
A few months ago I attended a lecture on the subjects of Color and Design and was looking forward to an interesting and enjoyable day. About ten minutes into the lecture, I heard a very soft whisper behind me "Oh, I just wish I knew enough to follow what she is saying. She sounds so knowledgeable."
Nellie, I realize that the whisper came from you, and you sounded so wistful that it really rattled me. It made me realize that you, and many others in the room who may have felt the same way, have been sold (or have sold yourselves) a "bill of goods." Somehow these subjects which are so logical and very simple have been surrounded by an aura of mysticism that is not only murky, but almost pompous! And it is all because of strange sounding terms and fifty-cent words (used when a ten cent word would do just as well) that either go unexplained, or under-explained.
To the novice, these big, strange words can be inhibiting, and I have an idea that from now on, the mere thought of joining a class on Color and Design might be intimidating because you feel that you don't know enough to follow the teacher. And that is a crime because you already know most of it, you just don't realize that you know it. It is almost impossible to attain adulthood in this day and age without absorbing most of what Color and Design are all about. We are surrounded by it, almost bombarded with it. It comes from our TVs, our magazines and our newspapers. We see it in the store windows and displays everywhere we look. We use it in the choice of clothing, make up, and the furnishings of our homes. But, for some strange reason, we have separated it out of our lives and the things with which we are familiar when we study it. This fairy tale of "to those who understand no explanation is necessary, and to those who don't understand, none is possible" simply does not apply.
Part of the problem is with the books we have available. Most of them are text books written with the idea that a teacher will be in a classroom to explain the parts the author leaves out. Don't misunderstand -- they are good books, but they speak in such technical terms and leave out so much of the basics that the novice often just throws up her hands in frustration.
Another part of the problem is the lack of a common vocabulary. Some people use one term and others use a different term to describe the same thing. If you have a general idea of what is being said, you can transpose the terms to understand the application.
Let's take the Principles of Color and Design (they apply to both). I was taught that there are four: Limitation, Balance, Dominance and Rhythm -- the use of which lead to 'Unity.' Some schools teach five, and include Unity as a Principle. It all depends on how they are explained, because they are both correct.
In order to understand how the Principles work, it is important to first understand what they are and what they are not. They are not rules -- like "Do this" or "Don't do that." In these subjects, there are no rules. It all depends on the effect you want to achieve. Some things may work in some places, but produce entirely the wrong effect in others; the only thing that you can really count on is that it will change from piece to piece, and from situation to situation. Nor are they guidelines. Guidelines are specific things that are set by someone to achieve a special purpose; and, if the purpose changes, so do the guidelines.
The Principles are more like "Laws of Nature" -- undeniable, unchanging and unchangeable. They have been observed since the beginning of time. The first caveman who took a piece of burnt charcoal and scratched on the walls of his cave his impression of the world around him used these selfsame principles. But, like Newton's formulation of the Laws of Gravity, they have only comparatively recently in our history been put into an explainable form.
The Principles are actually formulated on observations of human nature and emotion. As a species, man behaves in a certain way, feels common emotions in particular situations, and visually demands certain things of the world around him. The Principles are simply reflections and recognitions of these human traits. There is nothing mysterious or murky about them.
The obvious objective of creating a visual work, whether it is putting a blouse and skirt together, decorating a room, arranging flowers or creating a design or color scheme for a piece of needlework is to attract the interest (the eye) of the viewer and hold it as long as possible. To try to say differently is to ignore human nature. (Who would claim that they do their needlework to stash away in a hole?) There isn't any other reason. It is done to attract the attention it will attract. It is an entirely human trait. We are the only species that desires to attract attention by creation -- not merely display, but the creation of visual interest.
The human eye is constructed in such a way that it takes in everything within its field of vision. But for interest to be created, the designer soon learns that part of what the eye sees must be eliminated so as not to confuse the eye of the viewer, and part of it must be selected in such a way that the eye of the viewer does become interested and stops to look again. This process of elimination and selection is what the Principle of Limitation is based on. Simply put, it recognizes that too much visual stimuli will confuse and too little visual stimuli will bore the eye of the viewer. That is all ... there is nothing strange or mysterious about it. It's a simple observation on the human condition. It cautions not to go to extremes of either kind and that is all it does.
The Principle of Balance is where we really start getting to the core of using various tools at our command (called Elements of Design). Used here the word balance does not refer to the simple design devices of 'formal' or 'informal' balance. It refers, instead, to the broader meaning of the word -- the balancing of the contrasting forces that we can set up. Our eye demands contrasts if it is to become interested and it can easily loose interest if we do not provide them. There is, after all, nothing interesting about a blank wall. The play of forces -- light against dark, smooth against rough, bright against dull, straight against curved -- are what create visual interest. It is the dulls that make the brights look bright and the smooths that make the roughs look rough. If it is all one or the other, the effect won't be nearly as interesting to the eye. The Principle of Balance reminds us that these contrasts are a necessary part of creating visual interest and that we should consciously work toward setting them up.
While contrasts do emphasize each other's good points, they can also destroy each other's effectiveness if not used properly. If, for instance, a light value and a dark value are used in equal amounts within a design, they will fight with each other and the eye will see only a total of a middle value. The striking effect of a play of light against dark will be negated. The Principle of Dominance addresses this problem. Contrasts are necessary for interest. But, one of the contrasting parts (either light or dark) must be made dominant. That is, one must be given more emphasis and importance, and the other used for enhancement. It will depend entirely on the effect that is desired which one is given dominance, and how much dominance is granted. But, the choice should be a conscious one, just as a particular table is selected to enhance a sofa, or a shiny thread is chosen to enhance a wool (or vice versa).
Rhythm is something that we live with from the moment we are born. Our bodies demand a certain rhythm in the way we live. If we go too far past meal time, our tummy growls because its rhythm has been disturbed. If the tape we are listening to goes haywire, our ears complain at the chaos of sound -- there is no rhythm. If a runner we are watching stumbles, our eyes have a natural tendency to look away -- the rhythm of the runner's stride has been interrupted. Rhythm is something we count on to tell us that everything is working the way it should work -- even down to the hum of the refrigerator or the beat of our hearts. And, sometimes we only notice it when it isn't there.
Yet, the Principle of Rhythm is the most difficult of all the Principles to explain because it can be achieved in so many ways. Webster, in the unabridged dictionary, gives seven inches (in small print) of definitions for the word "rhythm." The best I can offer is two words-- "measured movement," and some examples of what is implied by those words and how it can be achieved visually. The undulating movements of a Florentine pattern is one manifestation of visual rhythm and a very obvious one. The repeated use of one color within a design is another. The gradual movement from a light value, through the middle values to the darkest value, or the gradual change of a color from dull to bright, or of a texture from smooth to rough are others. The use of "like" colors (such as yellow, yellow/green, and green) or "like" objects (such as celery, onions and tomatoes in a kitchen towel) or the gradual increase or decrease of the size of an object (or of the stitches) or the gradual change of the shape of an object can all result in the Principle of Rhythm being employed.
With an understanding of what creates rhythm, we are led right back to the Principle of Limitation -- the caution of don't use too many rhythms in the same piece. The circle is closed, and we are led to "Unity." Unity is when the design is complete -- when nothing can be added to it to make it better, and nothing should be subtracted from it. It is when everything "fits" . . . it is a whole, an entity in and of itself and can stand alone. It is the quality of Unity, achieved by using the Principles, that will determine the success of a design.
Are you beginning to see, Nellie, how terribly logical and simple it is? I hope that you are beginning to realize how much you already know. Oh, there might be a few blank spots and you might need a little guidance on how to put it in practice, and the terms might be a little strange in the beginning, but you really do know it and you already use it in your life. Please, don't ever doubt it again.