The Magic of Color: How to Make Confident Choices

comments (0) May 17th, 2008     

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MaryRay Mary Ray, contributor
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A color wheel is a terrific tool for color experimentation. You can
use one to identify colors close to a particular color or to locate
that color’s opposite.
Intense colors are bright and tend to advance.
Low-intensity colors are grayed and dull and often recede.
The intensity of a color can change, depending on the background.
The lighter value at the top of the image is referred to as a tint, the
middle value as a tone, and the darkest value is called a shade.
 Warmer colors tend to advance.
Cooler colors tend to recede.
A monochromatic color scheme uses tints, tones, and shades of the same color.
An analogous combination can look monochromatic, but it is based on 3 to 5 colors next to each other on the color wheel.
A triad of color refers to three colors that are located equidistant to each other on a color wheel.
A color wheel is a terrific tool for color experimentation. You can
use one to identify colors close to a particular color or to locate
that color’s opposite.

A color wheel is a terrific tool for color experimentation. You can use one to identify colors close to a particular color or to locate that color’s opposite.

Photo: Courtesy of Threads Magazine

Some of us have a natural color sense and instinctively know when colors work in harmony. Others are not as secure. But the good news is that color confidence can be learned, and the more you know about color, the more fun you’ll have. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go with your gut when making fabric selections.

Recently, I wrote about building a personal color palette —choosing mostly warm or cool colors that you’re comfortable working with and look good on you. Color is personal, and none of us see colors in the same way, so you want to be able to stand on your own when making color decisions. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of color theory when you select a group of colors for a quilt; you just need to know that your choices look good together.

Observing Your World in Color
There are lots of books written about color and courses you can take. All these resources are valuable. But one of the ways I’ve learned a lot about color combinations is to be observant and take lots of visual notes. There are so many places to train: outdoors observing nature, thumbing through magazines and catalogs, paying attention to anything that’s beautifully designed, and, of course, visiting art museums where you can study the works of great artists. Working and playing with color is probably the best way to learn about it.

Experiment with Your Fabric Stash
Take fabrics from your stash, and try out different combinations by just making little groupings, adding and subtracting until you’re satisfied with the results. Pin your choices on a wall, if possible, so you can stand back to observe the effect. Arrange them in different patterns, noting whether some pieces stand out or just blend in. Notice how one color looks next to another and how it seems to change when moved to a different position. Most important, do you like what you see?

Color communicates to us nonverbally. We react to it, and we don’t need to know why. But there is some basic terminology you should know to help you appreciate that reaction. There’s magic in color, but a lot of science, too. Here’s a glossary with some examples. See if you can put words to the color combinations you made when you “played” with your fabrics. Keep in mind, your fabric colors will be related to the colors on the color wheel. For example, colors such as teal, rust, olive, magenta—and hundreds of others—are all derived from the primary colors.

Color Glossary:

Hue: Just another word for color. Red, blue, chartreuse, lavender, etc. are all hues.

Saturation or intensity: Refers to how much or how little gray the color contains and how brilliant or dull it is. Saturated colors are pure, bright colors.

Value: The lightness or darkness of a color. Color values can have different names depending on whether they are light, medium, or dark:

Tints – light values
Tones – medium values
Shades – dark values

Temperature: This term helps to determine whether colors are warm or cool.

Color Wheel: A tool for creating color combinations. Arranged as:
Primary (red, yellow, blue),
Secondary (green, orange, purple)
Tertiary (blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple)

Color Schemes: These are ways of combining colors based on the Color Wheel.

  • Monochromatic – color scheme based on one color
  • Analagous – colors that are side by side each other on the color wheel
  • Complementary – colors that are opposite on the color wheel
  • Split Complement – a color scheme made up of a color and the colors that lie on each side of its complement
  • Polychromatic – all colors
  • Triad – 3 equidistant colors on the color wheel

I’d like to thank Christine Barnes of Grass Valley, California, for clarifying the language of color for me and how it applies to quiltmaking when I was her editor for an article in Threads no. 82, “A Color Workshop.”

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