|The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond VA, Photographed by Patricia Lyons|
My friend Jennings and I were talking a while back with Rob Cox, the winemaker at Paradise Springs winery in Clifton, Virginia, and I commented that the wine we were sipping tasted uncomplicated, but not unfinished. Rob said in winemaking, the term is “polished.”
|John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) 1884|
In art, polish is what makes a viewer feel that a painting is organized, fully realized and complete, and it is often the hallmark that distinguishes a professional painter from an amateur. Though a masterpiece may feel as if it just appeared on the canvas, a good painting is very much designed. As landscape painter Stapleton Kearns says, “information is not art,” meaning, a good painter doesn’t just copy what he sees in nature, he takes what he sees and then designs his painting–adding, subtracting or re-arranging the elements for maximum effect. For more information on this, check out Stape’s brilliant blog, here.
|Brie Williams, Photographer|
In designing interiors or gardens the concept is the same. Some spaces feel polished whether they are casual or grand. One secret to achieving this is to pay close attention to the composition of “lows” “mediums” and “highs,” just as a master artist or winemaker does. In painting this translates to color values.
As a painter, I can relate that beginning artists almost always make one of two mistakes: either the entire painting is created in middle values–the dark areas are not dark enough and the highlights are not light enough, or the entire painting has too few middle values, and your eye bounces back and forth crazily between darks and lights with graceful transitions or place to rest.
I used to wonder why zebras are not camouflaged a dull beige like many other animals on the African plains, but now I suspect that the genius of the crazy black and white pattern is that it becomes very difficult for a predator to focus on the moving animal, or on any one element in a running herd. Perhaps it even takes a split second (which might make the difference between life or death for the zebra) for the predator to discern which direction his prey is moving.
|Even this elegant “all-white” room from the Traditional Home showhouse has lights, mediums, and darks|
Anyway, it’s easy for a beginning painter and a beginning decorator to get all caught up in color, but color actually matters less than you might think. Colors in decorating go in and out of style. One year mustard is all the rage, the next, mustard is tired and everyone loves blue. Regardless of color, there are beautiful rooms in every era and every color of the rainbow.
Even monochromatic schemes need highs and lows to work. Imagine listening to a song composed of only middle C, played over and over again. An all medium-value room will likely be dull and monotonous to look at and live in, even if it’s orange. On the other hand, a room composed of only dark and light values might dance with energy (like a zebra), but can be exhausting or even distressing over time if there is no place to rest the eye.
Graceful rooms, like good wine, pleasing paintings, and beautiful songs, have rich soulful lows; clean highs; and middle values to serve as a transition between the two. When you look at the image above, ignore the color. People often think of yellow as “light,” but in this room, it serves as the middle value. Squint your eyes and you’ll see distinct darks and lights and a broad mass of middle values. Squinting is a great way to make values more pronounced and diminish the effect of colors.
These rooms are a great example…. nice use of mid-tones on the beagles by the way.
|Thomas Jayne, Photographed by Brie Williams|
This is a masterful composition by Thomas Jayne. Here again, yellow serves as the middle value.
If squinting doesn’t quite work, you can also take a photo of your room in black and white. I frequently take a color photo of a painting that I’m working on and convert it to grey scale in a photo-editing program. This helps me understand how the viewer’s eye will move around my painting. It can help you understand how the eye moves around your room.
|Samuel Melton Fisher, Flower Makers|
Here’s another secret…An artist knows that the focal point of a painting is frequently where the lightest light meets the darkest dark. In decorating, the eye can be led the same way. When you look at your black and white photo, you may be surprised to discover that the focal point of your room isn’t what you thought it was.
|Architect Robert Wade|
Architects and designers also use dark, medium and light values to create rhythm and “flow” just like an artist draws the viewer’s eye through a painting, or a composer leads a listener through a symphony.
Dark, medium and light values create excitement or repose in the mood of an interior room, or a garden room by controlling the rhythm and speed with which the viewer’s eye travels. Great garden designers find ways, both physical and visual to cause the visitor to slow down and take in the garden in the way they intend. A good designer works this out in a plan. That’s why it’s called design.
Sometimes simply changing the value of a lampshade or rug can make all the difference in the world to the mood of a room. For those of you who are musicians, this analogy will make sense: the designer decides if he wants the eye to sweep through the room like a waltz, bounce between values energetically like the crisp rat-tat-tat of a snare drum, or drift softly like a lullaby. A good general rule when working on your own rooms is that if you want more drama, use high contrast with fewer mid-tones. (Think zebra).
|Amelia Handegan, Photographer: Pieter Estersohn|
If you want a room or painting or even your clothing to feel more serene, reduce the contrast by adding more middle values. It can be fun to play with these aspects of color values to create a masterfully designed room or garden or wardrobe. What are your thoughts?
Originally published at Notes from a Virginia Country House. in 2012