Thursday, March 11, 2010

Color Theory for Quilters Exposed

If you ask the average quilter what is the most challenging part of the quilting processes, nine times out of ten, the answer is “selecting the right color fabrics to go together.” Let’s call this challenge “seeking harmonious color combinations.” Take heart brave quilters – you are not alone in this quest! Humankind has been seeking color harmony since the first attempt to draw on a cave wall. All artists in all media – paper, paint, photography, printmaking, metals, clay, found objects, etc. – struggle to find and use “just the right color.”

Ok, so by now you are asking yourself – why this blog entry and why the alternate title “Color Theory for Quilters Exposed.” It could be just too many years of Catholic school or it could be that I’m a Libra and fairness is everything. But the main reason is that I see my fellow quilters taken in by dozens of books and magazine articles about color geared specifically to quilter makers – and their wallet. The articles range from the light-hearted to the militant – from suggestions geared to selling a fabric line or color tools to “if you don’t follow this formula you and your quilts are wrong!” Yes I have had more than one workshop instructor tell me that if I did not use a specific color tool ($29.99 please) then my colors would be wrong and my quilt weak. Good grief! Your credentials are what exactly? Then there is the sprinkling of just plain wrong information. Not too long ago I picked up a very popular quilting magazine and flipped right to the article on color only to read in the first paragraph that the reason blue and yellow are a pleasing combination is because they are complimentary colors. WHAT???!!!! Last I checked blue and ORANGE are complimentary colors. Again I ask – your credentials are what exactly? I am writing this for the quilter that is trying to absorb all this information – the good, the wrong, and the expensive – and instead of being educated is simply more confused.

I am NOT a color expert. However, I have just enough of a fine arts background (Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting and graduate work in drawing and color) to know that color is color. There is no such thing as color for “quilters.” The colors of the Emperor’s New Clothes were selected using a Color for Quilters tool!

All color theory applies across the board regardless of medium. In ancient Greece, Aristotle developed the first known Color Theory. Later, da Vinci challenged Aristotle’s theories and added more information in his Treatise on Painting. From da Vinci until the mid twentieth century color theory was for the most part static. Color theory was concerned with the color wheel and the classic color wheel harmonies; Complimentary, Split Complimentary, and Tertiary. Then comes Johannes Itten, a Swiss painter, part of the Bauhsaus movement, and the twentieth century’s premier color theorist. Itten was able to demonstrate that color wheel harmonies have very limited practical application simply because the impact of the color combinations is quite different, depending on the colors involved. He demonstrated that for every pleasing color combination that occurs in nature that follows the “rules,” hundreds of naturally occurring color combination exist that debunk these same rules. Itten was able to determine that the color schemes proven effective are those with a contrast between warm and cool hues, contrast of value between light and dark, contrast of saturated and unsaturated colors, or contrast of extension - when one color is used over a large area and the contrasting color over a very small area. Amazingly, he proved that the most effective schemes and successful harmonies have very little to do with the color itself but with contrast. Hence the phrase “Value does all the work and color gets all the glory” attributed to unknown.

What does this all mean to a quilter? It means that the COLOR you pick doesn’t really matter to anyone except to you. Stick with the colors you love and you will end up with a quilt that you love. Look around your guild and pick out the quilters whose quilt color combos really sing to your soul. Ask them how they pick their colors. Usually the response is “I just pick what I like!”

Interpreting Itten’s theories, here are a few things quilters can do to maximize the visual impact of their quilts:

1. Choose both warm and cool hues. Even when creating a monochromatic quilt (all the same color) choose both. For example, if you want to create an all green quilt – think scrappy – then pick both cool (blue green) greens and warm (yellow green) greens.

2. ALWAYS vary the contrast of your fabrics. Pick lights, mediums, and darks in varying amounts. For example, balance a quilt made of mostly light fabrics with just a bit of medium value fabrics and even less dark value fabrics. Remember, value is relative – is determined by what is placed next to it – a small bit of light blue will read as a dark in a mostly white quilt. Any combination of light, medium, and dark will work as long as you vary the amounts of each value.

3. Contrast bright and dull. If all your colors are the purest, most saturated, they will compete visually and the brain will read chaos. For example, bright cherry red, bright blue, bright orange, bright yellow, bright turquoise – all in the same amounts in the same quilt - yikes! Art quilters that want to represent chaos with fabric would choose this combination. The opposite extreme would be all greyed tones or pastels - picture only pastel pink and green – boring – even for a newborn baby. Mix up the bright with the subtle.

4. Use different colors in different amounts. Another example, use mostly violets, purples, fuchsias and only a little bit of green as an accent. Take your cues from nature - picture a lush green garden with just a few pops of colorful blooms here and there.

5. Any color combination is valid. The closer the colors are to each other on the color wheel the more subtle and harmonious the effect. The further apart the colors are on the color wheel the more jarring the effect. “Jarring” in very small bits can be very exciting visually so don’t dismiss it as a tool.

Below are a few links to, in my opinion, some of the best colorist working today. They all just happen to be quilt artists. Mary Sorensen’s lecture on color is especially good and I highly recommend it. Take a little time to look at these artists’ work and I think you will be able to see most of Itten’s principles translated into fabric.

Mary Sorensen   

Karen Kay Buckley

Diane Gaudynski

Sandra Leichner

Charlotte Angotti

Ricky Tims         

Thanks for putting up with my soapbox-style rant. I should be fine now for several months – or until the next time I read, “blue and yellow are complements” or I see a new Quilter’s Color Tool and I am forced to defend my fellow quilter’s right to use any color they darn well please!

Best stitches!

Mercy in Miami

Aka The Savage Quilter

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