CLEAR and beautiful colouring, sometimes complex, sometimes simple, is one of the principal features of fine embroidery. Some people are by nature more of colourists than others, and often hit upon the right method of work, while they would be puzzled if you were to ask them to explain the why and wherefore of it ; but with others it is a matter of education, and a few general precepts founded on observation may be given for the benefit of those who are still feeling their way.
To the entirely uneducated eye (speaking with regard to colour) blue is blue, red is red, green, green, and so forth, every colour being positive, and there being no idea in the person's mind of the relation of one colour to another. But after a little observation and experiment you will find that beside their positive value, colours have a relative value of which you have never dreamed hitherto : a colour that is in itself beautiful may become absolutely atrocious by awkward handling, being placed, for example, beside some other shade that is its natural enemy.
Of the colours principally used for embroidery, blue is one of the pleasantest to have constantly under one's eye ; but personal idiosyncracies play an important part in colouring, and one person may declare against a generally admired colour without being able to explain the reason, though perhaps his doctor or his oculist could do so. Of blue choose those shades that have the pure, slightly grey, tone of indigo dye (varying somewhat, of course, on different materials). The quality of this colour is singularly beautiful, and not easy to describe except by negatives : it is neither slatey, nor too hot, nor too cold, nor does it lean to that unutterably coarse green-blue, libellously called ' peacock ' blue ; it has different tones - brilliant sometimes, and sometimes quiet - reminding one now of the grey-blue of a distant landscape, and now of the intense blue of a midday summer sky - if anything can resemble that.
Pure blues, such as I am attempting to describe, are to be seen in the Chinese silks and satins, which are familiar now to most of us, sometimes very pale, and sometimes almost black in their intensity, but always full and brilliant. The modifications of this blue to purple and grey-purple on the one side, and to green-blue on the other, are also useful colours, being chosen and employed with care.
Of reds, we have first a pure central red, between crimson and scarlet (for in the pure colour neither blue nor yellow should predominate), but this is a difficult shade to use; by far the most useful are those 'impure' shades which are modified by yellow, as, for instance, flesh-pink, salmon, orange, and scarlet; or by blue, as rose-pink, blood-red, and deep purple-red. The more delicate of such shades can be freely used where a central red, overpowering in its intensity, cannot. A warning, however, against abuse of warm orange and scarlet, which colours are the more valuable the more sparingly employed, and as dainty little spots of colour treasures indeed.
The most valuable colour next to blue is green, or, rather, equally valuable in its different way, being to some people more restful to the eye and brain. This being so, it is curious to remark how very rarely a good full green, neither muddy or coarse, is offered to the public. It is important for you to understand the different qualities of the various shades of green necessary for your work; for, if you are told, or if you feel that such and such is an intrinsically admirable colour, you may perhaps through sheer enthusiasm try to use it where it should not be used, or employ a certain shade in large masses that should be soberly dealt with, and so forth.
Here, again, we see the force of the positive and relative value of colours : a cold, strong green, not in itself very pleasing, placed against a clear brilliant yellow, gathers depth and force which it would otherwise lack ; a blue-green may strike the right note in a certain place, but if its use be exaggerated may blemish all. Now, there are certain greens which are brilliant and rich, and, when employed broken with other colours, produce a fine effect; but when a green is to be largely used, it should be chosen of a greyer, soberer shade, such as the eye rests on without fatigue. Avoid like poison the yellowish-brown green of a sickly hue that professes to be ' artistic,' and looks like nothing but corruption, and avoid also a hard metallic green, which, after all, would not easily seduce a novice, as it is very obtrusive in its unloveliness.
For your embroidery-palette certain definite sets of green will be necessary ; full, pure yellow-green, greyish-green, and blue-green, two or three shades of each. The brilliant pure green that we admire in a single spring leaf is impossible to use in large masses, nor does Nature, whose all-pervading colour is green, give us these acute notes in unbroken mass. You have only to look at the effect of light and shade in a tree in full spring foliage, with the browns and greys of its twigs, to realise this fact: the great masses of green meadow-land, besides showing a variety of colour that may be overlooked in a careless glance, have a tenderness of tone that is quite beyond and above any possible imitation in art.
For a central yellow choose a clear, full colour that is neither sickly and greenish, nor inclined to red and hot in tone. Of impure yellows, pale orange and a warm pinkish shade that inclines to copper are useful, besides the buff and brownish shades that will sometimes be wanted for special purposes. These, I think, include all the yellow shades that you need trouble about. A certain experience is wanted for the successful use of yellow, so that those who take a special delight in the intrinsic beauty of this fine colour will do well to avoid too enthusiastic an introduction of it into their work.
Of course, different colours and different dye-stuffs are affected by different materials. This is eminently the case with yellow: on wool, which absorbs the light, a large unbroken mass of yellow is positively forbidding; while in silk, with its lights and reflections that serve to break the colour, it is another matter.
Purple again is one of the 'difficult' colours with which we must, as it were, hit upon the exactly right tones to use. There are two valuable purples - a rather full red-purple, tending to russet, and a dusky grey-purple, which is, if the right tone is obtained, a very beautiful, and, if I may say so, poetic colour. Perhaps such colours belong more to the artist's palette than to the embroideress's set of wools or silks, but it seems to me there ought to be little difficulty in getting all manner of strange and charming shades out of the dyer's vat, if the dyer of commerce had the enthusiasm of his art.
Harmony, contrast, and repetition - all these laws that we have glanced at with regard to form have the same application to colouring. In arranging your work, you should have in your mind a definite scheme of colour, as simple as possible at first, and consisting, perhaps, merely of one predominating colour with a few touches of another for a relief. When a little more experienced, you should still have some dominating colour or shades of a colour, among which contrasting tones are placed, bringing out the relative values according to your skill or instinct in choosing.