For elaborate and costly work, it is obvious that gold and silver will form an important factor in the scheme of colour but here again it must be noted thatmetals, if employed in great masses, highly raised and without due relief and softening by colours, are apt to look hard and a trifle - sometimes more than a trifle - vulgar.
For example, compare a late French or Spanish vestment of the richest description with one of the same kind made in one of the best periods of this art. Both are equally lavish in materials and workmanship ; the modern is probably a mass of thick padded and corded gold, sewn down with yellow or white silk on a rich white ground. While labouring by this piling up of metal to get all the effect of splendour he possibly can out of his materials, the craftsman has produced a piece of work smart enough for theatrical effect, or for a piece of pageantry, but giving no idea of splendid and sumptuous beauty, such as the faithful of all times have been desirous of surrounding their religion with, according to their abilities. But, on the other hand, a similar work of art, wrought in a more spontaneous and genuine period, with similar aims, that is, to be a fit offering to a favourite saint, in whose benevolent personality the craftsman had a genuine belief, would have shown less vaunting of costly material - though none were stinted ; but the cunning with which rich and brilliant colours were interwoven with gold would leave an impression on the eye of subtlety and fantasy that is one of the charms of the art.
Some such work that I have in my mind has a flat, golden background, the surface broken by being worked in a simple zig-zag or waved pattern, needing far more 'technique' and delicacy than the lumpy gold of the late French or Spanish cited above. On this gold background will be placed subject groups from the lives of the Saints, perhaps, or rich and fanciful ornament and foliage, wrought finely and laboriously with silk, with more gold, and possibly with little pearls and other precious stones. You don't want to have your high priest look as if he were cut out of tin-foil, but clothed in changeful folds that shine as he moves, and take lights and shadows on them like those of precious stones themselves.
Such work, with its quality of mystery, had a living splendour, and was indeed 'fit for kings' treasuries,' as the simple saying has it, or as we might say nowadays, fit to gladden the eyes of all who believe that everything beautiful that is made serves its due purpose in enriching the treasury of the world.
I had no intention of raising the question here whether kings' treasuries or the treasury of humanity itself should have the privilege of possessing beautiful things, and. what is more, the power of enjoying them ; but a belief in the power of beauty is a wholesome thing, and I make no apology for preaching it by the way. As an art, therefore, that should help to decorate home life very largely, and public life too, as regards religious buildings, public halls on festive occasions, and so forth, embroidery deserves to be taken seriously, especially the higher branch of it, which includes intricate colour and work in gold and precious stones, such as that of which I have been speaking.
It is not easy to give much advice about method in colouring, as I suppose every one has his or her own pet way of setting to work. The colouring of your design can be treated as dark on a light ground, that is, using principally dark colours on a light ground ; or, as light upon dark, using light colours on a dark ground - a more effective and more difficult treatment ; or by placing colour upon colour, forming, as it were, a mosaic of colours of more or less equal tone. This last is an elaborate but very beautiful method, in which Eastern artists have always excelled. A few hints as to grouping of colours to guard against fundamental errors will be all that is possible to touch upon here.
As aforesaid, start with the simplest possible scheme of colour while you are feeling your way, and when you launch out into combinations of two or three colours, let one predominate, the others being rhythmically disposed to emphasise the leading tone. When you feel you can come to bolder contrasts, avoid placing a blue directly against a green of nearly the same tone ; if blue and green are mixed, the blue must be very light against a dark green, or the reverse. Again, red and yellow, if both vivid, will need a softening line to separate them, though a pale yellow with a clear, pure, rather delicate scarlet is by no means a displeasing arrangement ; or again, a full, clear yellow with a very pale brick-red.
Red and green must be carefully chosen, and softened by an outline ; avoid much use of any cold green, especially avoid placing it against a misty blue, for the indecision and muddled effect of this arrangement is the reverse of pleasant.
Brown must be carefully chosen, warm in tint, but not hot; a little of it will be necessary in figure-work, but for merely floral design a decided brown need be seldom used. Black also has distinct value in certain sorts of work, but the use of it should be left to an experienced hand.
In handling colours, you must bear in mind the retiring quality of some and the assertive quality of others, but do not emphasise these qualities too much. Your work should, on the whole, be very flat and quiet in general character, though as bright as you can get it in the individual tones. As in design, avoid confusion and indistinctness of detail. The mystery and reticence spoken of with regard to work of the highest order is quite another quality, and one with which we have little to do here, beyond teaching ourselves to recognise and appreciate it. Make no attempt to grope after 'startling novelties,' but try for pure, clear tones. When people say they like 'soft, quiet colouring' in textiles and embroidery, it is an unconscious tribute to harmonious colouring, for the colours themselves, if excellent in quality, can hardly be too brilliant ; if they appear so, it is the craftsman who is at fault.
In conclusion, I will ask leave to remind you that though there are the two aspects of embroidery, the one in which it is accepted as one of the lesser arts, having its due place in history and in our lives, and the other in which it serves as an occupation for an idle hour, yet in both cases it is worth nothing if not pursued with due method and soberness, and carried out in a workmanlike way.