Friday, January 28, 2011

Thinking about color

My sampler quilt is continuing and has gathered into its blocks many more fabrics than I originally intended. At first the leftovers from a Kansas Troubles collection were to be the basis but I quickly determined that my remaining pieces would never be enough for the entire quilt. My husband constantly asks for brighter colors in my quilts so I started raiding the stash and pulling in brighter greens, pinks, yellows and more black and shirtings for contrast. The group of blocks is a riotous melange of shades now but will make an interesting sampler.

While I was looking at colors I thought about our perceptions of them. Take what we almost universally think of when we say "Williamsburg colors". The grayed blues, subtle tones and muted palette. The kind of colors you get with milk paint and natural dyes. It might shock you to talk to the restorers at Colonial Williamsburg to be told as I was during a tour that the shades of paint identified by the investigations in the original buildings were decidedly brighter - mustard yellows, bright greens, red.

Or consider the recent story I saw in a House Beautiful magazine about work at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. I remember the dining room there when I visited the house over twenty years ago. The walls were a somber and muted blue. Archaeological restoration has discovered by analysis of paint chips that in the later years of Jefferson's time, the room was painted a quite jarring shade of chrome yellow, that color being available due to the recently invented chemical dyes coming from France in the last part of the eighteenth century. The newly painted room was quite a surprise. Curators acknowledged that it would shake up a few people, but pointed out that Jefferson, a progressive man, would have found the new paint colors that were becoming available to be modern and interesting.

I remember a few years ago when the PBS program "This Old House" was restoring a colonial farmhouse and a paint expert was called in to take samples and determine the original color scheme used on the exterior. This house was in an historic area and changes, including colors, would have to be approved by the Historical Society. Everyone was quite shocked when it was determined from microscopic analysis of layers of paint removed from protected areas of the exterior that the original color of the house was a rather garish mustard yellow and the shutters were green. The Historical Society - that bastion of preservation, faced with the fact that their dream neighborhood of white houses with neat black shutters was, in fact, a dream - refused to approve the new color scheme, since it clashed so badly with their idealized vision of what a colonial home looked like.

While working on the Civil War quilts project from Barbara Brackman's blog, I started following links to articles about period fabrics and came upon a photo of a piece of preserved mid-nineteenth century calico and the modern reproduction fabric that was made from its design. I couldn't help but notice that the vivid reds that were still visible on the original fabric had been toned down decidedly in the reproduction. That made me think about the rather subdued colors in many of the Civil War repro fabrics I had bought in the past. Are we rewriting color history again?


The Calico Cat said...

I think that "we" think that CW (& older) reproductions are muted/somber because they have faded.

If they have infact faded that much, then they must have been quite vibrant indeed.

joe tulips said...

This was all so interesting! Yep, were changing color history.