"No more work for me now. It's all pouring into me so deeply and gently, I can feel it and am gaining confidence, without any effort. Colour has taken hold of me. I don't have to chase after it. It's got hold of me for good, I know." - Paul Klee

"When I choose a colour, it is not because of any scientific theory. It comes from observation, from feeling..." - Henri Matisse

 

As these two artists realised, using colour can be inspirational and instinctive. Working with colour in quilts can produce exactly the same effects for the quiltmaker! The skills involved in using colour effectively and successfully are very easy to master - colour theory is not rocket science. Once you understand the basics, you are free to use the "rules" to your advantage or to break free from your usual colour range with the confidence of achieving sucessful results.

Tints and shades of one colour combine in Marion Haslam's pinwheels quilt
Tints and shades of one colour combine in Marion Haslam's pinwheels quilt

Playing with and using colour can be great fun, so take time out to play with the swatch packs available from many quilt shops and mail order companies. Also look around you at the colour inspiration we can see on a daily basis - advertisement, shop windows, flowers, postcards, paint charts, light effects caused by the weather, the urban environment, fruit and vegetables. All these can give you ideas for effective, stimulating or calming combinations.

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is a way of representing the colours in the spectrum. If you understand how the colour wheel works, everything else will slip into place. It is often shown as a circular arrangement of "pure" colours (also called hues). There are three primary colours - red, yellow and blue, from which all other colours are made. Mid-way between them are the three secondary colours green, violet and orange. The secondary colours are formed by mixing the primaries in equal proportions (borrow a child's paint box and check for yourself that blue + yellow mixes to green and so on). In between the primaries and secondaries are not surprisingly, tertiary colours, again formed by mixing. So yellow + green will produce a yellowy-green (lime) and blue + green produces blue-green (turquoise).

Exercise 1

Make up a colour wheel with plain fabric swatches (start by choosing the primaries) and stick onto paper. Pin up by your sewing table for easy reference.

The basic colour wheel with primary, secondary and tertiary colours
The basic colour wheel with primary, secondary and tertiary colours

The Value of Value

Another term you may come across is saturation - this simply means how pure a colour is (and is also known as intensity). If you just used pure colours in your sewing, your quilt would be rainbow bright, but would lack subtlety. What you need to add now are some TINTS and SHADES. Tints are made by adding white to a pure colour (remember tInt and whIte), so you have a paler, lighter colour. With blues, you'd produce a sky bue or baby blue depending on the amount of white added. However, if you add black to a pure colour, you'll produce a deeper, darker colour, a shade (remember shAde and blAck). Shades of blue include navy blue and deep indigo. This element of colour, is called VALUE. One colour quilts made with pure colours, tints and shade can be very effective.

Some types of Amish quilts traditionally used muted greyed colours, offset by flashes of lighter tints as shown in this Four Patch
Some types of Amish quilts traditionally used muted greyed colours, offset by flashes of lighter tints as shown in this Four Patch

If you added grey to a pure hue, the resulting colour would be a TONE. Tones are very useful for adding subtlety and sophistication to a colour scheme and as you become more experiencedin colour, these greyed, often slightly "iffy" colours will become your best friends when designing quilts.

Exercise 2

Using patterned fabric swatches, try and grade colours from the darkest shade through the pure colour, right to the lightest tint. To decide on the lightness or darkness of a fabric, squint at it, use a ruby colour value tool or photocopy the fabric. The last two techniques both ignore the actual colour of the fabric and allow you to concentrate on the value.

Grade colours from the darkest shade through the pure colour, right to the lightest tint
Grade colours from the darkest shade through the pure colour, right to the lightest tint

Complementary Colours

Now the fun really begins! If you refer back to the colour wheel you have made and draw a line from the primary to its opposite number on the wheel, you will find its complementary. For example the complementary colour for blue is orange or yellow is the opposite of violet. Complementary colour schemes always have great impact (just think of red and green at Christmas).

Block interpreted by Nancy Rampling, Sue Sharp, Danielle Jeremiah
Block interpreted by Nancy Rampling, Sue Sharp, Danielle Jeremiah

The same block interpreted by Jenny Anderson, Cathy Blavins, Ruth Case
The same block interpreted by Jenny Anderson, Cathy Blavins, Ruth Case

When you put two or more colours together to emphasise their difference, you are creating a CONTRAST. For the greatest effect, complementary colours are best used in uneven proportions, such as 2/3 purple and 1/3 yellow. Plus, remember the impact of value and include some tints and shades as well!

The six blocks shown here are examples of the same bock sewn by different quilters. The identical block is interpreted in a variety of colour schemes producing dramatically different results.

Good Neighbours

The third basic recipe for guaranteed successful colour schemes is to use analogous colours. If this is a bit of a mouthful to remember, just think of good neighbours. Analogous colours are those adjacent to one another on the colour wheel. For example, on one side of blue sits green and moving in the other direction, blue is next to violet. The use of analogous colours always results in a harmonious colour combination for a quilt.

We hate to repeat ourselves (really!), but having just learnt the tricks of value and complementary colours, you should now think about including a touch of a complementary colour for extra fizz. Alternatively, a few shades will give added depth to your analogous scheme.

Marion Haslam's 'Home is where the heart is' uses complementary red and green, but not in even proportions
Marion Haslam's 'Home is where the heart is' uses complementary red and green, but not in even proportions

Even more possibilities

The fun with colour now continues with some further ideas for colour schemes. These formulae are good starting points when deciding on a colour scheme.

  • Achromatic - containing no colour, that is using black, white and grey fabrics. Whilst achromatic is the correct technical term, you will also find that black, grey and white are often referred to as neutrals.
  • Monochromatic - containing one colour including tints and shades, eg red, magenta, baby pink, cerise, maroon.
  • Polychromatic - containing many colours (that is, multi-coloured).

 

Remember that playing with colour should be fun. By working regularly with your fabrics and combining them into pleasing colour schemes (even if you do not have a immediate quilt in mind), you will be exercising your colour skills. If a scheme doesn't quite work, look at it closely - what is missing? Too bright? Maybe it needs the added subtlety of tones, tints or shades. Too dull? Think about adding a complementary colour for contrast. When you come up with effective colour schemes, cut small swatches and stick or staple in a notebook for reference.

Plus, when you are looking at quilts in group shows and juried exhibitions, take time to look at the colours the quilters have used and discuss with friends why they are successful. Learning to look, appreciate and analyse are some of the best skills a beginner quilter can cultivate. To explore the subject further, look at our Book Reviews where you will find books devoted to the topic of colour.

Meanwhile to finish, here are a few more terms that you will come across on your exciting quilt journey, all of which can be successfully incorporated into your quilts.

  • Harmony - a balance of colours.
  • Advancing - colours which come forward visually (for example, red).
  • Receding - colours which fade into the background visually (for example, blue).
  • Transparency - when certain colours intersect (and overlap), they appear transparent and another colour is formed. This visual trick can be created in a quilt by using a third fabric.
  • Colourwash - the grading of colours according to their tonal value. This technique can produce very effective quilts using patterned fabrics.
  • Simultaneous contrast - the effect of colours on each other when the differences between colours are accentuated. (It happens particularly with light/dark combinations or complementary combinations.)
  • Optical mixing - the new colour which is formed when two colours are next to each other. It is most apparent when viewed from a distance.

First published in Patchwork Basics 2002