Color Theory Basics

Color Theory has always fascinated me. Why do certain colors work well together? How does adding a texture affect the overall feel and design? How do you create depth and movement in your quilts? The list goes on and on. Well it so happens that some basics in color theory can really help when picking out fabrics and since I've received quite a few questions about fabric selection for the Mystery Quilt Along I thought it would be a good topic for this week's blog. So let's talk colors.

Color Categories

There are three different color categories. The first color category is the primary colors which consist of the Reds, Yellows, and Blues. These are the base colors that are used to derive all other colors. Next are the secondary colors which, if you remember art class in school growing up, are created by mixing the primary colors together. This category contains Orange, Green, and Purple. Lastly we have the Tertiary Colors which are created by mixing one primary and one secondary color together. Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green, and Yellow-Green make up this category. All the colors will interact with each other in different ways when combined, but we are not going to go into that in depth in this blog post because most people are pretty comfortable with what color combinations the prefer.

Hue, Shade, Tone, and Tint

Next let's talk about Hue, Shade, Tone, and Tint. Hue is just a fancy word for a color on the color wheel in its purest form. Color Hues are bright, vibrant and fully saturated. In your quilt color hues will make a bold statement. They stand out and catch your eye like a tall sunflower in a sea of grass, against the beautiful blue sky, or like your drunk uncle at your wedding. While the sunflower is beautiful and easy on the eyes the drunk uncle can be a bit of an eyesore and can leave you with some negative memories. 

So the question you have to ask is, how do you keep the drunk uncle from showing up front and center at your wedding? Don't serve alcohol so he can't get drunk. One way to do this is in color is to add black to your color hue to create a new shade. As you add black the value gets darker which causes it to recede into the background. So this will prevent your uncle from getting drunk and becoming the main attraction.

What if I don't want a sober uncle any more than I want a drunk one because he will annoy everyone around him by talking about how the human race was brought to populate the Earth by aliens? Then how about letting him get buzzed. He will still show his quirks but they will be much more subdued. To achieve this we adjust the tone of the fabric, which is essentially adding grey to your color hue. Adding grey to any color hue tones down the color saturation or intensity of a color while still allowing it to coexist peacefully with the rest of the fabrics in your quilt. 

Our options seem to be a sober, buzzed or drunk uncle, but what if you want a calmer more subdued wedding and still want to be able to serve alcohol? What can be done? Don't invite your uncle to the party. In color we do this by adjusting the Tint which means adding white to a color hue. When you add white the value becomes lighter and the color more subtle. A quieter and calmer feel is expressed in the design. This gives your eyes a place to rest and take in the beauty of the overall design, and the other fabrics. Tints are really the unsung heroes of many quilts but can be challenging so when we talk about value we will give them a bit more love.

Color Value

Gather round my young Padawan and talk about color value we will. As you know the force has a dark and light side, but beware the dark side least you be swallowed up by the shadows. Ok, so while it really it is not that dramatic, darker fabrics do recede into the background while lighter fabrics come forward and give your eye a calm place to rest creating balance in the universe, but just like every good tale dark and light are not the whole story. Even in a fictional world, the majority of the population isn't dark or light but somewhere in between. Well in fabric it is the same. The vast majority of fabrics are in what we would consider the medium range, somewhere to the tune of about 80% of fabrics produced and sold. 

So when you plan your quilt how you write the story of your quilt is all relative to the message you are trying to convey. Your fabrics may range from light to medium, or all the way to dark. All the fabrics may be in the medium range and that is ok, but before you sit down to pick fabrics you want to plan out the depth you want to convey in your project or design. Do you want it to be an easy Saturday read or a captivating novel? It is entirely up to you. The more variety in value though the more nuanced it will be. 

Ok, now that we have that covered I'm going to delve into lights a little bit, because they can be a bit more challenging to pick. Lights are not as vibrant and don't draw your eye like medium and dark fabrics do because of their subdued nature, but they play an important role in any quilt. Because they do not have the strong visual appeal that draws us to them like mediums and darks we purchase less of them, which means less of them are produced, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. When we go to pick lights and view them with the other fabrics our eye seeks them out and rests there, which  is great when looking an at overall design, but when looking at one solid piece of fabric can be overwhelming and make it seem too light, and like it will take over your quilt.  This is just something to keep in mind when planning a project and picking your base or background.

Assessing Value

While knowing all this is great, how do you apply it? There are a few ways to asses the value of a fabric without the color and fabric design chatter getting in the way. I will cover my two favorite. First is purchasing or making a color viewer, It is the easiest method if you do not have access to technology on the spot, but can afford to carry around something small and inexpensive.  If you aren't keen on purchasing one, and prefer to make your own, you can use anything red and clear you might have such as a see through red plastic plate, or red cellophane, or in my case a pair of red lens glasses I stole from my husband. Red obliterates color and what is left behind is the value. The second method does the same thing, but works well if you have a smart phone or an easy way to alter a photograph. You are going to want to take a photograph of all your fabrics together and convert them to a black and white image. What is left will be the true value of the fabrics and you will be able to see if you have the range you desire.

A small side note. When I design a pattern and put it in EQ7 I always do the design in grey scale before ever adding fabrics or color to make sure I get the depth I want in my design.

Solids, Textures, and Prints

The last part of this blog post is not really about color theory, but nonetheless it is an important factor in fiber arts and the part of picking fabrics I have received the most questions about. Should I use prints? Will they work well in this quilt? Is there such thing as too much print? These are actually extremely hard questions to answer because the question of how much design and variation is too much or too little is very subjective. So what to do? Well before you pick fabrics for a project, whether it is a design you know or a mystery, decide if you want a lot of movement and variety in your quilt, or if you want to fall somewhere in between. If you like very busy quilts with a lot of variety go with prints. When I think very strong print fabrics I think about Kaffe Fassett  and Amy Butler, but if too much print overwhelms you, but you still enjoy them pair them with a texture or solid fabric. If you want high contrast and the design to do all the work go with solids. From a personal perspective I prefer to mix prints with solids and textures because I feel I get the most robust design.

Picking fabrics can be challenging because we put so much love and effort into what we make, but having a little color theory in your pocket can help us make more conscientious decisions when it comes to fabric selection. So now armed with these new tools hopefully you are now prepared to battle the dark side of the force and prevent your drunk uncle from ruining your wedding.