Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Contrast Basics for Traditional Quiltmaking -- Color

Color is the most frequent topic of conversation among quilters in my opinion and it's certainly the most interesting part of any quilt for many of us.  Color is the thing that catches our eye about a quilt before anything else.  You can see the same quilt in your favorite color and love it, but not even notice it in a color you don't like. 

While it's the factor that catches our eye, it's also the element of making a quilt that intimidates many of us.  We are under the illusion that we have to be "artistic" to create satisfactory color combinations.  That's not true.  What is true is that it takes practice to recognize your color preferences and to learn how to manage colors in such a way that they please you.  I've had lots of practice -- 26 years of keeping shop and over 35 years of teaching will do that. 

Some things I've learned from all that experience:

Everyone has color preferences that are the result of where we live and subtle cultural cues.  That means we need to understand where we are with color before we can move into uncomfortable color zones.  (That also means you might need to stop relying on "designers" and manufacturers to organize your color combinations for you, but that's a "soapbox" I can't get on today.) 

Step one is not to be intimidated by the color wheel.  There are a couple basics that are easy to understand.  This represents the twelve basic color families.  The outer ring are the "darks" that have black added to the pure color.  The middle ring are the pure colors.   The inner ring are the "lights" that have white added to the pure color.
Next you need to understand that every combination of colors directly across from one another on the wheel are STRONG or HIGH contrast.  So if you want a bold, strong contrast in a quilt, choosing colors that are opposite each other achieves that no matter what that combination is.
Here's one -- violet and yellow.  Since I've chosen prints as close to the pure colors as I could get in my stash, it's a very strong contrast.  If I want to soften it, I could change the value of one of the prints.
Or I could chose a color closer to the violet.  The closer two colors are on the wheel, the softer the contrast.  So here is the violet with red -- squint at the pictures and you can't even tell the block is a 9-patch.  
When you chose colors that are adjacent on the color wheel like this it's called an analogous grouping.  Analogous groupings add a lot of interest to a color scheme.
When you are working with a two color scheme, adding a little of the adjacent colors to one of the main colors works well.  The technical name for this is split-complementary.  In this illustration, the yellow-green and red-violet are the complementary colors (highest contrast).  Adding greens and yellows will make that palette more interesting.
Another element I find helpful is to use the warm side of the color wheel versus the cool side.  This is the cool side -- can you guess what colors are on the warm side?  So when we want to create a calm color scheme focusing on this group of colors helps us achieve that.

But when we want to go happy and bright and hot, we use the warm side to evoke those impressions.

Batiks are not my favorite palette of fabrics but I know they are very popular with students so when I want to make a teaching sample using batiks, I rely on this warm versus cool aspect of color to achieve the contrast I prefer in a quilt.  This 8-pointed star is a good example of that.
Look back at the "split-complementary" view of the color wheel -- what is it? 

It's a warm and cool contrast -- in fact every combination of color opposite each other on the color wheel are warm and cool!!

This is my happy color palette -- an ivory or white ground with clear colors.  I've learned a lot from fabrics that "sing" to me.  I've learned to create combinations that please me by imitating them.  This piece is currently being considered for a project and it may or may not get used for it, but I will definitely use it to pull my fabric pile because I want it to be a happy quilt and this make me happy!!  I don't need to define the combination, but it's helps to recognize how the contrast is achieved -- it's using all the shades of green as a secondary background.  The colors that show up the most on it are the reds, oranges, and yellows.  The contrast with the violets are softer -- because it's closer to green on the wheel. 
I hope these thoughts about achieving contrast with color are helpful to you, but experimenting with color is the only way to get comfortable with it.  Remember, quilters who do "fabulous" stuff have their share of ugly stuff that has helped them get to the point they are today!!

Mary Huey


  1. thanks Mary--I definitely feel I am one of those who are intimidated by picking colors--when, in fact, I think it SHOULD be the fun part. I find that my "mood" almost always determines my colors. Right now I have (for RSC15) a blue/white cross block (light and bright); a dark blue/turqoise with small bits of purple (dark side definitely; and a blue/ gray going. (middle of the road serene). I am enjoying your posts a lot--very informative...hugs, Julierose

    1. Thanks, Julierose -- sounds like you are in your "blue" phase!!

  2. This was a great tutorial that I will refer to occasionally. Even as an experienced quilter, I sometimes need a reminder about color and how it all works.

    1. Thanks! It always surprises me when I "lose" my way with color after all these years.

  3. What a clear explanation! Thank you for posting!

    1. Thanks for visiting again -- glad it might be helpful to you!

  4. Thank you Mary for this great explanation of the color wheel. I would never have thought of using the tints and shades of the hues to select fabric. I'm one of those that leaves it up to the designers. Hmmm maybe no more!

    1. Thanks, Linda. Color confidence takes practice and involves making mistakes, but happily no one punishes us for make a few color mistakes!!