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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Color, Color, Color
 In Oriental Rugs and Textiles

by R. John Howe

Tom Xenakis, a Washington, DC area painter who also collects rugs recently gave a “rug morning” presentation at the TM in which he talked about how “An Artist Looks at Color in Oriental Rugs and Textiles.”

Tom started with a comment that startled me a bit, likely in part because of my very real ignorance of the world of art.

He said that as an artist he came from the post-modern era in which graphics were important but color less so.  But when he began to attend the TM rug mornings, he heard repeatedly the mantra that the three most important things about oriental rugs and textiles were “color, color and color.”  He saw that rug collectors and rug scholars seem to treat color more centrally in their evaluations of rugs than he did himself.

It surprised me to learn that many artists of Tom’s generation might not treat color as central to their art as we rug collectors do in our collecting.  It both “freed” me a bit and encouraged me to explore this whole area a further, despite my very real status as an amateur in it.  Many of today’s artists are apparently not only not going to have much to say to us about color, but are in fact not nearly as interested in it as I think we are.

This is a salon inspired by that talk.  I will draw on some things that Tom said and offer some illustrative examples similar to those he brought in, but what follows is very much my own doing and Tom is not responsible for any misstatements or gaffes I might make.  I will also draw on some internet resources on color theory.

My objectives are to explore a little more systematically than is usual how color operates in perception, how weavers use such aspects of color without what we would describe as formal training in it, and some of the things that rug and textile collectors and scholars say about color.

First, let’s do our “homework” on color theory.  Please read a bit into the two sites below by way of preparation for our discussion of color in oriental rugs and textiles.



OK.  If you have read into these two sites you likely know quite a bit more about color theory than you did beforehand.

I am going to point to some of the aspects of color described in these treatments of color theory and then to offer initial examples that seem to me to illustrate applications of them by weavers.  It will be likely that others will feel that they can improve on these examples or at least offer different ones that are equally interesting and you are encouraged to do precisely that in this discussion.

I will also occasionally raise and relate some issues about color that arise amongst rug and textile collectors. Again you are invited to speak to these and to provide other examples.

(What follows is longish and probably a bit discursive, so if you’re not up for that you’re excused at this point without offense.  You are also fore-warned.  )

One of the color theory treatments suggests that a good beginning point for thinking about color is “color harmony.” 

Some folks question if there is such a thing; I think Yon Bard did once on these pages.  I asked Tom Xenakis directly and he said in this session that he thinks that there is such a thing as color harmony.

He characterized it in terms that are familiar to most rug folks.  He said colors are “harmonious” when “no one color jumps out at you.”  Harmonious colors are “symphonic” in the sense that the colors are working together in unity.  Tom also suggested that “harmonious” colors should not be “muddy.”And that some aspects of “intensity” are related to color “harmony.” An “intensity” of color that is “even" leads to a “harmonious” effect.

The color theory treatment of color harmony seems a little different and violates my “man on the street” sense of this aspect of color.  My previous picture of color harmony was mostly a matter of whether colors “go together” (to use technical language J ) or “clash.”  The color theorists, alternatively, begin by positing color harmony as a continuum:

Extreme unity <------------------------------------------------->Extreme complexity
(Results in  under-stimulation)                                            (Results in over-stimulation)

The say that color harmony should result in:

A dynamic balance
Visual interest
A sense of order

I have to admit that I don’t really take in what they mean by this species of color harmony.  My questions include:

·                    “Unity” versus “complexity of what?  Is something like one color vs. many intended?

·                    “Balance” makes sense, if this is something like “no color jumping out,” but is it?

·                    “Visual interest” seems potentially to be something that applies to lots of other aspects of a work of art besides color harmony.  Why are they using it here?

·                    “Sense of order” might also be understandable if it alludes to things “going together” again, “nothing jumping out.”  But if it alludes to an organizational dimension, I don’t understand why it’s here under color harmony.

Color harmony was something I felt better prepared to give examples of before I read the color theory sites, than I did afterward.  Others may have different experiences.
But let me give what seem to me to be some pieces that have good color harmony.

This is a “Moghan-Savalan” saddle bag half from John Wertime’s “Sumak Bags” book that seems to me to exhibit color harmony at its near acme.  There are quite a few colors.  They are placed in various combinations and proximities to each other and everything seems to “go together.”  Despite that fact that the colors in this piece are pretty deeply saturated, none of them calls special attention to itself.

In his talk, Tom offered a flat-woven mafrash side panel as another example of good color harmony.  From a little distance, this second piece seemed “washed out,” but up close it is clear that it, too, is a good example indicating that color harmony is not dependent on deep saturation.

Caucasian rugs, although nowadays disparaged by some experienced collectors (likely as
mostly “commercial”), are still admitted to often offer some impressive uses of color.

Here are four more Caucasian pieces that seem to me to offer good color harmony.

The first is a Karabaugh, long rug

which Schurmann describes as having “an astonishing variety of colours used, among them many delicately blended hues, all of which are combined in a splendid harmony.”

A second example is the complex Kazak piece below.

Again there are a number of saturated colors.  The white accent areas draw attention as they are meant to do, and we notice the red because it occupies in total the largest area, but except for these two instances none of the colors used here calls particular attention to itself.

To anticipate another color effect, the dark field recedes noticeably beneath both the field ornaments (which appear to “float”) and the red ground main border which frames the field from a middle distance.  Mike Tschebull notes in his caption that this piece was likely made by two weavers since some instances of abrash in it “run only to the center.”

A third Caucasian piece (below) from Kuba shows both color harmony, but also illustrates how different the same colors look against a dark versus a light ground.

A fourth Caucasian example of color harmony is still for me an example of good color harmony despite the fact that the white areas begin to draw noticeable attention to themselves.

Here, next, are some examples in which color harmony seems to me in some sense to be lacking.

First is the detail below of a Maldari Balouch flatweave.

My own view is that the hot orange-red in this piece calls attention to itself.  Now it may be responded: so does the white used.  Why is this hot orange-red not merely an instance of contrast usage?  I think that sometimes a legitimate challenge can be raised, suggesting that we should better distinguish the color harmony error “calls attention to itself,” from the seemingly permissible “contrast” usage, which deliberately does precisely that.

I can think of two possible responses.  First, contrast colors are usually chosen from the complementary side of the spectrum.  But this orange-red is an analogous color that does not blend in with its fellows.  It is not just that it calls attention to itself, but that it does so in a way that is aesthetically jarring.  It provides, with this jarring effect, a less pleasant experience than do the colors in the positive color harmony examples above.

Still, this example puts pressure on our claim to be able to distinguish accent and contrast uses of color from those that we would usually describe as lacking color harmony.  Here is a second example that may put even greater pressure on this latter point.

The long rug below is attributed by Schurmann to Baku in about 1800. 

It exhibits a number of colors used to draw small devices on a dark ground.  But then there is all of this deeply saturated green.

For me, this green violates the color harmony of this piece simply because it demands so much attention for itself.

But notice that the green does not seem to clash particularly with the colors in the rest of the rug.  Some might argue that the unpleasantness experienced with the Balouch piece immediately preceding this one is absent here.

For me, the balance between colors used that is clearly present in the first of the favorable color harmony examples provided above, is lost here simply because there is relatively too much of this very vivid green.  But it may be arguable whether the white and red usages we accepted in the third favorable color harmony example above are really different from this use of green.

Note too that the judgment about whether this use of green violates color harmony is not a matter of unattractive colors from synthetic dyes.  These were not available when this piece is estimated have been woven.

I want to give you two more potential examples of bad color harmony.

First, is this lion rug from Fars.

Tanavoli attributes this piece to the Qashqua’i.  It seems to me that this piece lacks color harmony on two grounds.

First, both the red-ish ground color and the orange that is used to draw the lion are not pleasant and “go together” (they are analogous) mostly in the sense that they both part of a group we might label “unattractive.”  They do not work together to provide a pleasing aesthetic experience, despite both being analogous to one another.  In contrast, the dark ground color of the border works very well and what we can see of the coloring of the flowers is not jarring (although perhaps both the bad orange and red are used there too and are just not noticeable because of the small scale).

My own tendency would be to say that this instance of bad color harmony flows mostly from the fact that the colors themselves are simply not attractive to me.  It is their ugliness that calls them to my attention, not just their prominent use.

Here is another example that may be similar.

This is a Tibetan piece that Kuloy says is 149 X 80 centimeters and was woven as a single “regular sized rug, not as a runner.”  But I do not want to discuss its format, only its colors.

Now it might be claimed that the pinks and reds and blues in this piece are in fact an instance of fairly successful analogous colors.  More, that the contrasting use of white and darker reds and middling blues function in a way that is not unpleasant.  But for me this is still an example of lack of color harmony.  Yes, the colors are close, and no they don’t jar one another, but the character of the basic ground color is simply unattractive to me and makes it hard for me to consider whether it goes with the other colors used.

I think this is a more difficult position to defend: that sometimes color harmony is dependent on the sheer attractiveness of the colors used (even if those used go together without noticeable clashing.  Here is seems to me I may be furthest from the defining criteria of color harmony and still unwilling to say that this piece has it.

It might be good to be explicit now about the fact that there are two kinds of color harmony, that resulting from the use of “analogous” colors (those closer to one another on the color spectrum) and of “complementary” colors (those roughly opposite one another on the color spectrum.

Darker analogous colors are often used by Balouch weavers.  Here is an example:


And a closer look:

Analogous colors are also used by Turkmen ladies.  Here is a Saryk chuval face from the Mackie-Thompson catalog, “Turkmen.”

The analogous colors used in Turkmen pieces are famously reds and oranges.  Blue and white is usually applied sparingly in contrast and green and yellow are relatively infrequent.  The predominant reds of this piece give it a unity, let us see it holistically first.  Slight differences in shades of red may let us feel that guls on some pieces “float” on the field and that the border frames it at a slightly different level.  The accent use of white and dark blue moves our eyes about the piece to draw attention to the details of the guls and the skirt.

Analogous colors, of course, do not have to be dark.  Here is a city rug that Jon Thompson attributes to the “Arraf Mamoury"  workshop, Esfahan, 1970s.

Quite close ivories, tans and brown shades are used in small, complex design devices with highlighting mostly in dark colors.

We move now to the other main variety of color harmony: complementary colors.

Frequent complementary color pairings are:
Red <  > Green
Wine <  > Olive
Purple <  > Yellow
Brown shades <  > Blue shades

One format that Tom Xenakis collects is soufrehs and he offered some of these as his examples of the complementary use of color.  Here is the largest of those he brought.

The primary complementary use of color in this piece seems to me to be red-green.

This is more visible in some closer looks at it.

We notice the use of complementary colors most when they are placed next to one another.  Here are just two examples.

The small Turkish kilim below is attributed to central Anatolia, between Nigde and Nevsehir.  Notice that the red-green usage appears again. 

A blue-brown complement is allowed in one place in the border but in the field is separated by an intervening color.

Discussion  Proceed to Part 2