'The Most Dangerous Colours': Advice From a 19th-Century House Painter

'The Most Dangerous Colours': Advice From a 19th-Century House Painter

Carolyn Purnell
Jan 13, 2016

Entrance hall designed by David Ramsay Hay in 1824

"Beauty has a real existence, independently of any opinion, fancy, or whim," or so argued David Ramsay Hay, a Scottish house painter who wrote several bestselling books on interior design and color theory. Hay argued that interior design should be executed with strict rules about color harmony in mind, and he wrote exhaustively about what colors work best in the home. Read on for some of Hay's rules, matched with interiors from our House Tours. Do his rules still apply?

The following tips are drawn from the 3rd edition of The Laws of Harmonious Colouring (1836). Our color technologies, pigment availabilities, and our methods of lighting are quite different from those in the time Hay described, but he still offers some words of wisdom.

(Image credit: Submitted by Maureen)

Maureen & Lui's "Moved Down the Street" Massachusetts Home

The Order of Approach:

Fix the tone first. The degree of warmth or coolness will be regulated by use, situation, and light. Then choose the style (gay, somber, etc.). This is more particularly regulated by the use of the apartment and the sentiments which it ought to inspire. (p. 25)

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Nancy's 'Farewell to Houston' House Tour

Strength and Contrast:

The brightest colors and strongest contrasts should be on the furniture.
(p. 27)

(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

Sophie's Modern Vintage Mix in Western Australia

In Bedrooms:

Light, cleanly, and cheerful style of colouring is the most appropriate. (p. 27)

(Image credit: Kim Lucian)

Keith and Paige's Scrounge n' Lounge

Using Yellow:

It is the most powerful of the positive colours, and consequently the least agreeable to the eye, when unaccompanied, or when predominating in a pure state....In decoration, pure yellow cannot be employed in large masses, but merely as a heightening colour; yet light tints of yellow have a very pleasing effect in bedrooms. (pp. 31-33)

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Michael, Kerri & Nora's Alternative Family Home in Brooklyn

On Orange:

Pure orange, from its great power, is not often employed in decoration, yet many of its hues are the best adapted for window curtains, chair seats, and other furniture, where gorgeousness and splendour are desirable. (p. 36)

(Image credit: Nicole Crowder)

Oscar's Well-Preserved DC Rowhouse

Regarding Red:

Pure red, and its various hues of scarlet, are too violent and obtrusive to be used in large masses. (p. 86)

From the positive nature of red, there is no colour that requires more toning and management, when exhibited in large masses, either in decoration or in variously-coloured manufacture. The effect of red individually being striking and powerful, it has, like yellow, been much too indiscriminately employed. (p. 39)

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Amy's Vintage Jewel-Tone Apartment

On Artificial Lighting:

It has already been noticed that all artificial lights, used for economic purposes, are less or more of a warm yellow colour…This colour being the natural contrast to purple, and being thus diffused over it, neutralises and injures its effect. Indeed all cool colours are less or more injured by the effect of such lights, while warm colours, from their being allied to red, are improved in brilliancy. (p. 43)

Jessica's Unbelievably Chic (and Colorful!) Edinburgh Flat

Indulge in Blue:

Blue is individually pleasing, and, at the same time, a brilliant colour. It may, therefore, be used in any general arrangement of colours, as it is in the colouring of nature, in a much larger proportion than either of the other two primaries. (pp. 45-46)

(Image credit: Mike Hetu)

Lisa’s Artgoodies and Vintage Finds

Go Green:

Green is the most neutral and softest of the secondaries, and it is and the most pleasing and agreeable of all hues to the eye. (p. 47)

(Image credit: Submitted by Julie)

Julie's Black, White & Green Home

Beware Black and White:

Black and its contrasting hue, white, are the two most dangerous colours in the whole chromatic series; the one being at the bottom and the other at the top of the scale, they each require particular management. (p. 51)

What do you think of Hay's rules? Do you tend to agree? Or is he too restrictive in his ideas about color?

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