Analysis of Proposition 26, Grammar of Ornament

Proposition 26: Colours on white grounds appear lighter; on black grounds, darker.

Owen Jones (1809 – 1874) was a Victorian architect, most well – known as author of the book ‘Grammar of Ornament’, published in 1856. He was one of the most radical designers of his time, especially in the case of his ornament designs. His book illustrate historical ornaments from architecture, metalwork, woodwork, glass painting etc. Jones’ book covered all bases and inspired artists and designers all across the world. The Grammar of Ornaments also lists and explains thirty seven propositions that dictate arrangement of form and colour. These propositions turned out to be ground-breaking and of highest quality even in its least revolutionary parts. They present a logical distillation of the principles apparent in the decorative plates that he studied across the length of the book. Jones saw them as the intellectual core of his work. They were written as a remedy to the problem located by critics in the definition of ‘arrangement of form and colour.’

Proposition 26 states that ‘Colours on white grounds appear lighter; on black grounds, darker.’ The statement suggests that the colour ‘white’ makes the colour placed on top of it seem of lighter value or tone, while the colour ‘black’ would make the same colour seem darker.

The principle works on the basis of simultaneous colour contrast, i.e. how each colour affects the other. Since we rarely see colours in isolation, this effect is a part of our daily lives. The effect does not change the original colour, it simply changes our perception of the colour. For example, if blue and red are placed one beside the other, the blue would seem to be greenish, while the red would seem to be a shade of orange.

The theory of simultaneous colour contrast is also connected to the Bezold Effect. This effect was discovered by a 19th Century rug designer, Wilhelm von Bezold. He found that he could alter the appearance of his rug entirely simply by changing the background colour. This concept – of the change in perception of colour in relation to another colour – came to be known as the Bezold Effect.   When white is applied to the entire composition, its light value washes over the rest of the composition, while same is the case with black. The reason behind this effect is a neurological puzzle. There are several theories – some believe that it may be due to spatial frequency dynamics or brightness perception, other believe that it is due to the manner in which our retina processes each colour.

To illustrate further, if we place the colour orange against a black background, it will seem darker as compared to when placed on a white background. The case remains true across the entire spectrum of colours. However, if we place grey on a white background, it seems darker, while on a black background, it seems lighter.

Thus, we can conclude that proposition 26 ‘colours on white grounds appear lighter; on black grounds, darker’ works for all hues except grey.


New World Encyclopedia. “Bezold Effect”, last modified on June 6, 2016.
Feisner, Edith. Colour: How to use colour in Art and Design. London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2006.
Ornament Scholar. “Ornament as a distinct from Decoration”, last modified on February 23, 2014.
Jesperson, John. “Originality and Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament of 1856”. Rhode Island College, 2008.
Frankel, Nicholas. “The Ecstasy of Decoration: The Grammar of Ornament as Embodied Experience”. Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 2 (2003), last accessed on October 1, 2016.


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