How can you give a restful character to a place? Read on for one technique with an excellent pedigree…
Some colours are brighter than others: ‘dark blue’ makes sense in a way that ‘dark yellow’ does not, for example. Where there are more than two colours, the eye is most comfortable if the colours are displayed in progressive, ordered sequence of how bright they are. For example, these sequences are harmonious as they move from light to dark, or vice versa:
These, however, are not harmonious due to the disorder of the sequence:
Order ‘A’, above, is known as ‘Architectural Order’. The idea is that darker colours seem ‘heavier’ to our eyes, and lighter colours seem, well, ‘lighter’. Arranging a sequence so that the heaviest is at the bottom, the next heaviest just above that and the lightest at the top seems the most stable arrangement to our eyes, and therefore seems restful. This arrangement has long been used by artists who wish to produce a restful impression, such as many landscape artists.
In this landscape by Claude Lorrain, for example, the foreground is brown (the darkest plausible natural floor colour) and slowly transitions from the greens of the trees to the light blues of the water and the misty hills, and then to the yellow sky. Now, this is not the only thing going on here: for one thing since brown is technically a desaturated red or yellow, the use of a brown foreground and blue hills conforms to our expectations about warm colours seeming closer than cooler ones. (See this post - not for nothing are brown foregrounds a cliche). A second thing to note is what another post called ‘The Lorrain Technique’. A third is an apparent outlier to Claude’s supposed use of the architectural order, the dark band of cloud that links the distant hills on the right to the dark foreground tree. This is required not only for this linking function but also because, if the eyes have been consistently moving in an upwards direction, then they will be primed to continue both through expectation that there might be more interesting things higher up and through inertia. Yet it is slightly uncomfortable to maintain looking upwards, either through craning the neck or through holding the eyes looking upwards, and so if there is a cue that there is little need to continue looking further upwards then we are apt to gladly take it and move our gaze downwards. For this reason, I think, landscape paintings frequently tend to darken somewhat towards the top.
Application in Covent Garden
This shopfront in Covent Garden displays what is close to a pure architectural order, with a dark brown base, yellow lighting in the middle and a creamy top. Lest the eye be tempted up uncomfortably high, the cornice device at the top of the shop gives a cue for the eye to start drifting downwards.
The whole arcade follows precisely the same shopfront design and the use of architectural order, and that of repetition, produces a markedly calmer atmosphere than other arcades in the same building.
In addition, the use of sepia tones evokes a nostalgic feel that is intensified by one end of the arcade having as its focal point a sign redolent of British childhood holidays.
A final point I’d like to note is the hanging name-signs that mark the boundaries between each shop. The dark brown is the same colour as the shop base and so from many angles would ‘break the architectural order’ due to the use of a dark colour at the top. However, I think it adds a pleasing touch of symmetry (which is, of course, another restful pattern) whilst not detracting from the fact that the shopfronts themselves follow the architectural order. It also, of course, provides important information and so makes the arcade function somewhat better.
A too strict application of the architectural order can detract from the many other functions a design must have, and so it’s often handy to deviate from a dogmatic application of the architectural order so as to aid the design as a whole. For another example, take a look at this painting by Claude.
Here the closest band of sea is much darker than the brown foreground, but the brilliant white of the Sun’s reflection balances out the dark water so that that band of sea as a whole feels lighter than the foreground. It’s important to note that Lorrain is not ‘tweaking the rules’ for its own sake, or to show off, but for the good of the painting: without that sunlit path to the Sun the viewer’s gaze would sweep around the shore to the buildings on the right before reaching the Sun, and this would leave a really awkward ‘hole’ at the centre of the painting. Claude combats this through the use of the bright reflections in the water: the strong contrast of dark water and bright reflection, and the contrast between the dark and light bands of water, strongly attract the eye and balance out the picture. To emphasise this he puts the only ‘double daub’ of sunlit highlights where the dark and light bands of sea meet. In addition he blocks a smooth sweep around the shore through placing the group of people at the right of the foreground, and leads the eye towards the start of the sunlight path by placing one of the active boatmen right where the path begins.
A restful impression can therefore be created through the use of the architectural order, but it should be subservient to the design as a whole and not applied dogmatically.