Home Page Discussion

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.

Part 2:
Color, Color, Color
In Oriental Rugs and Textiles

by R. John Howe

A second use of complementary color seems to me to be less successful.


The purple-gold-red combination doesn’t work for me in this detail of a large kilim attributed to southwest Anatolia.

So far we’ve dealt with:

Color harmony
Complementary colors

It should be clear now that there is a relationship between analogous vs. complementary colors and what we call “contrast.” 

Color “contrast” is a visual effect that is the result of where colors are on the color wheel. 

Analogous colors have lower contrast with one another.

Complementary colors have higher contrast with one another. 

Compare the various color combinations above with regard to contrast and notice how analogous colors and complementary colors operate with regard to it when placed side by side.

Proportion and Dominance

The color with the largest proportional area is the “dominant” color (often the ground color).

    Smaller areas are “subdominant” colors.

    “Accent” colors (which we have mentioned more than once above) are those with a small relative     area, but offer a contrast because of a variation in hue, intensity, or saturation.

Weavers often use a dominant color to hold the overall visual effect of a weaving together.  The Kazak piece below, despite often having deeply saturated colors used in sharply contrasting ways, also uses a dominant color to maintain the visual whole.

The red of the field is also present inside the main field devices, as well as the outside border.  The effect of the presence of this red in all of these places, and the fact that it is the proportionally dominant color, works to unify this rug and to let us see it initially as a unit before we begin to examine its details.

Here is a colorful piece that seems to me more fragmentary-looking because no particular color seems dominant.

Even the border, that has a different design and scale, does not frame much because it has these same colors in about the same proportions.  Now someone might look at the close-up below

and claim that there is, in fact, a maroon red ground color visible between the squares that is the dominant color in this piece and functions, albeit unobtrusively, to hold this piece together visually.  I don’t see it that way, but can see that some might.

Although dominant colors often work to hold a piece together visually, subordinate colors can have more effect than one might think.  It sometimes takes only a little variation in a subordinate color to product fairly dramatic effects in a weaving. 

The rug below is a small Ersari.  It uses a strong, but subordinate, yellow to dramatic effect.  But notice that while the rug is still held visually together by the dominant reds of its ground color, one of the first things noticed is its overall chaotic appearance.

Examination reveals that the drawing of the field is quite regular:  the field contains four full and two half main carpet “Suliman-type”guls.  The chaos effect is the result of the weaver’s failure to use the expected strong, subordinate yellow in two quarters of one whole gul and one quarter of one half-gul. 

In addition, the use of the dominant red in both the field and as the ground color for the main border (which does contain some substantial devices of a different scale and color from those used in the field) prevents the main border from performing its framing function in a satisfactory way.  It is interesting how great the effects of these two color usages are in this rug.

Oddly, I do not personally find this piece unattractive.  Its very chaos is what has tempted me to have it copied so that I could look at its design often.

We have mentioned Accent colors previously – usually high contrast colors.  They have the effect of making our eyes jump around on a work of art rather than of responding to the whole.

The accent white in this Karachopf Kazak works to move our eye, not just to the center of this piece, but to its four corners.

Accent effects – An accent effect can also be produced by changing either the actual “texture” of a weaving or its apparent texture.  Mixed technique pieces often use both changes in color and texture to produce accent effects.

Bakhtiari bags such as the one above are famous for using mixed techniques to produce accent effects. 

Abrash” can also have an accent effect.  Historically, abrash has had such effects either accidentally (weaving with wool produced in small dye lots in which “same” color in fact varies) or deliberately.  The abrash in the Bidjar kilim below seems to have an accent effect.

Some colors themselves can produce dimensional effects.  Light colors “pop out” or tend to move forward.  Darker colors tend to recede.  Middling colors occupy a similar spatial distance.  A classic example of this use of color is seen in Talish long rugs such as the one below.

Color theory suggests that the deep blue field should be experienced as receding in perspective.  The minor red borders should occupy a middling distance and the white ground border should appear closest to us.  Do these colors produce these effects for you? 

An interesting elaboration of this phenomenon is that since the medallion devices on the white ground border are darker than it is, they should in theory be seen to “punch holes” in it and to move to more distant levels.  What do you think?

Here is a Caucasian piece with a white ground and darker borders. Does the white ground of the field seem closer?

This piece also lets us compare how the same colors look against lighter and darker grounds.

Here is a more complex instance of colors effect on dimensionality.  The piece below is a Senneh kilim with a niche design.

Color theory posits that we should experience the dark ground of the field under the mirhab as furthest from us and the white ground of the field above the niche form as closest to us, with the red of the borders in a middling distance.  Does this happen for you?

Looking closer, such effects should even be visible in the color effects used for the boteh devices.

First, the botehs in the dark part of the field should appear to float on it, while the devices in the white ground areas should be experienced as being at levels beneath that ground.  And looking at the botehs in the area under the niche form, the white edges should look closest, while the green and red areas at a middling distance and the dark ground (within the botehs) furthest.  Looking at the edge of the niche form in the close-up, one should experience the green-red border as moving above the dark field but beneath the adjoining white field with the dark outlining on this border serving as a kind of  etching of it.  Do all of these theoretical effects of color use in this piece produce the predicted visual experiences as you look at it?

One more instance of the way that weavers attempt to suggest dimensionality with color.  The Moguls are famous for having used close colors next to one another without intervening outlining, what is called the “ton-sur-ton” usage.  Here is a glorious Mogul rug.

The Moguls seem to have used colors in this way to achieve either more rounded-looking devices or to produce shadow effects.  Look at the close-up below of the immediately preceding piece and see if you can spot the “ton-sur-ton” usages.  Then evaluate their success in achieving these two objectives.

Tom pointed out that “corrosion," which is a species of “dimensionality,” can also function to produce accent effects.  Although this is true, and can be seen readily in many Jaf Kurd bag faces (Tom had the Kurdish rug below with deep and surprising corrosion in its blues), it seems to me that corrosion leaves the world of color effect, since the receding, even if it works as an accent effect, is not just apparent, but real.

Now I’ve gone on a bit here about color theory and color as we experience it in rugs and it’s clear that this is a subject that is nearly inexhaustible, although some readers may long since have become exhausted by my rather discursive treatment of it here.

So what should we do in this salon?

Well, we can offer examples of rugs and weavings that illustrate various aspects and uses of color.

We can debate whether color theory is, in fact, always borne out in our experience.

We can offer examples of color usage that seem to us to be less successful.

We can also talk about a number of aspects of the use of color that I have not really dealt with above.  Here are a few possibilities (some of which Tom Xenakis dealt with in his talk):

Use of color to affect graphics – how color affects how we experience the graphic elements in a piece of art.

We could explore our views of “saturation” or “intensity” of color.  We tend to respond positively to pure, intense color. 

Luminosity” is another term for characterizing “intensity” of color.  In weavings this can be enhanced as “patina” emerges (a sheen that can develop as colored wool is polished with age and use).  We could ask ourselves why patina is seen to be attractive on an oriental rug, but not on a pair of blue serge dress slacks.  It’s just a “shiny-ness” after all.

We could also ask whether we are not sometimes inconsistent in admiring deeply saturated colors and then moving quickly to also compliment softer ones that have been “nicely modulated” by age.

There are symbolic uses of color – Color means different things in different cultures.  Some of these symbolic meanings of color are interesting.

Colors have temperatures.  Yellow, red are warm.  Green, blue are cool.  Are there things to notice about this dimension?

Collectors often refer to color palette, usually in the context of making attributions.  Rugs from particular areas are often seen to have colors that comprise a typical palette.  It is often argued that rugs not having this palette of colors are not likely to have been woven there.  Do we know what we’re talking about when we make such assertions?

Tom pointed out that there is an “economics” of color.  That is, some colors are more expensive to make.  This is especially true of colors that require “double-dyeing.”  “Double-dyed” colors include:

    Aubergine or purple
    Orange (at least some)

These colors have traditionally been both difficult and expensive to make soundly.  That likely accounts, in part, for some of their appeal to scholars and collectors.

Cochineal reds, while not double-dyed, have also been expensive to produce, as are the colors produced by the direct use of gold and silver in weavings.

And, of course, there’s lots of discussion in our world of colors and dyes:

Tom said that the “natural” dyes vs “synthetic dyes debate with regard to weavings is analogous to the “natural” paints vs acrylics in painting.  Acrylics have some desirable features (e.g. fast drying) but we don’t know yet what pieces painted with acrylics will look like several hundred years hence.  We do know that some natural paints have retained bright, strong colors for over 2,000 years.

We know that some early synthetic dyes faded and changed dramatically in relatively short time.  We do not yet know what “chrome” dyes or even contemporary “natural” dyes with look like several hundred years from now, but we do know that the natural dyes in some 15th and 16th century Turkish and Persian rugs can exhibit colors with wonderful purity and saturation today.

Early synthetic dyes were often garish, lacked harmony and as they changed lost balance and affected the unity of the entire weaving.

The quality of wool seems important to intensity of color and the color of the structural materials may sometimes have some effects on the visible aspects of a weaving. 

At the most obvious level, the warps of Senneh pieces with multicolor silk ones are used in part to enhance the visual experience with the rug.  These warps are meant to be seen.  It is also possible that the choice of foundation colors may sometimes be made by weavers either to avoid or to achieve certain other effects on the surface of the weaving itself.  (It may be useful for a rug with a lot of white ground not to have warps or wefts with more definite colors.)  Eiland reports that in some places the color of the wefts are varied to make it less likely as a rug wears that the structure will “show through.” 

And there is also the chemical alteration of color after dyeing and weaving.  Weavings can be both “bleached” and “painted” to produce particular color effects.  (e.g., painted Sarouks).  In general, bleached and painted rugs are not seen by collectors to have attractive colors.

Nowadays, since rug and textile repair has become more economic, color can also be altered during repair and restoration.  This can lead to debates about the morality of some uses of color in such repair work.

So you can see the possibilities here are very broad indeed.  This could be a salon that is accessible to most everyone, and that could be useful, as well as, enjoyable.

Let the “colorful” discussion begin.  (My God!  I just thought:  I’m going to have to summarize this thing. )


R. John Howe

Image Sources

(Number sequence has gaps; no rugs used are missing from this listing)

(You can discover the number of a given image in this essay by
putting you cursor on the image, left click, then right click and choose properties from the drop-down menu.)

Color 1     Jon Thompson, “Oriental Carpets,”  1988, p. 101.

Color 1a    Detail of image in Color 1 above.

Color 2     Jon Thompson, “Oriental Carpets,”  1988, p. 7.

Color 3     Alastair Hull and Jose Luczyc-Wyhowska, “Kilim,” 1991, p. 193, Plate 148.

Color 4     Parviz Tanavoli, “Lion Rugs from Fars,” 1974, p. 49, Plate 23.

Color 5     Hallvard Kare Kuloy, “Tibetan Rugs,” 1982, p. 132, Plate 99.

Color 6     Ian Bennett and Aziz Bassoul, “Rugs of the Caucasus, 2003, Plate 79.

Color 7     Ulrich Schurmann, “Caucasian Rugs,” 1974, p. 137, Plate 40.

Color 8     Ulrich Schurmann, “Caucasian Rugs,” 1974, p. 75, Plate 10.

Color 9     Ulrich Schurmann, “Caucasian Rugs,” 1974, p. 241, Plate 87.

Color 10     John T. Wertime, “Sumak Bags of Northwest Persia, p. 151, Plate 87.

Color 11     Louise Mackie and Jon Thompson, “Turkmen,” 1980, p. 70, Plate 6.

Color 12     Elena Tzareva, “Rugs and Carpets from Central Asia,” 1984, p. 135, Plate 89.

Color 13     Parviz Tanavoli, “Persian Flatweaves,” 2002, p. 97, Plate 46.

Color 13a    Detail of piece in Color 13 image above.

Color 14     Raoul Tschebull, “Kazak,” 1971, p. 41, Plate 11.

Color 15     Raoul Tschebull, “Kazak,” 1971, p. 85, Plate 33.

Color 16     Raoul Tschebull, “Kazak,” 1971, p. 99, Plate 40.

Color 17     Photo of a Flatwoven mafrash that Tom Xenakis showed in his TM rug morning.

Color 18     Photo of a Bakhtiari soufre that Tom Xenakis showed in his TM rug morning.

Color 18a    Detail of image 18 above.

Color 18b    Detail of image 18 above.

Color 22     Yanni Petsopoulos, “Kilims,” 1991, Plate 91.

Color 22a    Detail of image 22 above.

Color 24     Yanni Petsopoulos, “Kilims,” 1991, Detail of Plate 35.

Color 26     Ralph Kaffel, “Caucasian Prayer Rugs,” 1998, page 113, Plate 60.

Color 26a    Detail of rug in image Color 26 above.

Color 27     Parviz Tanavoli, “Persian Flatweaves,” 2002, p. 132, Plate 106.

Color 27a    Detail of image 27 above.

Color 28     Parviz Tanavoli, “Persian Flatweaves,” 2002, p. 171, Plate 127.

Color 29     James Opie, “Tribal Rugs,” 1992, page 139, Plate 8.9.

Color 30    Parviz Tanavoli, “Persian Flatweaves,” 2002, p. 110, Plate 60.

Color 31     Ulrich Schurmann, “Caucasian Rugs,” 1974, p. 167, Plate 53.

Color 32     Daniel Walker, “Flowers Underfoot, 1997, p. 60, Fig. 54.

Color 32a    Detail of image 32 above.

Color 33     Photo of a Kurdish rug with deep corrosion in blue areas that Tom Xenakis showed
                   during his TM rug morning.

Discussion  Return to Part 1