Use the Color Wheel, Value, and Intensity to Work with Fabrics
Learning the basic concepts of color theory helps sewers and quilters understand which fabric colors work best together, and how to choose pleasing color combinations.
Why do some color combinations look just right together, while others look garish, muddy or just plain ugly? The first step in learning how to choose fabrics with colors that look great when they are sewn together is to understand a few basic concepts of color theory.
The Color Wheel and the 12 Hues
Hue is the scientific term for what people ordinarily think of when they refer to colors: red, blue, green, and so on. Hues include every color except pure white or pure black. The color wheel contains 12 different hues:
- 3 primary hues: red, yellow, and blue. Like prime numbers, the basic three colors can’t be reduced to more fundamental colors. They form the building blocks of all other colors.
- 3 secondary hues: orange, green, and purple. Each secondary hue is a combination of two primary colors. Red + yellow = orange. Blue + yellow = green. Red + blue = purple.
- 6 tertiary hues (also called intermediate hues): the six colors made by combining a primary hue with a secondary hue. The six tertiary colors are red-purple, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and blue-purple. They occupy the spaces between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.
Color Value – Tints and Shades
Value is the term for how light or dark a color is. Pure white is the highest value, while pure black is the lowest value. Pure colors can be made higher in value by mixing them with white or lower in value by mixing them with black.
- Tints are pure colors with white added to them. Tinting a color makes it paler than the original hue.
- Shades are pure colors with black added. Shades are darker than the original hue.
Learn more about combining light and dark fabrics in pleasing ways.
Color Tones and Intensity
Intensity describes how bright or dull a color is. A pure hue can be dulled (made less intense) by adding either grey or the color located on the opposite side of the color wheel, which is called its complementary color. Adding purple to yellow reduces its intensity. A pure color mixed with either grey or its complementary color is called a tone.
Combining Colors into Color Schemes
The secret of creating a particular mood with a quilt or piece of clothing comes from combining the various hues, tints, shades, and tones with each other in different ways. These combinations of colors and their variations are called color schemes. A few color schemes are perennially popular:
- Monochromatic color schemes combine various tints, shades, and tones of one color – all green, for instance, or all green combined with black or white. It’s relatively easy to pick out fabrics from the same color that look good together. The biggest pitfall of monochromatic schemes is that the finished result might look dull. Learn more about monochromatic quilts.
- Analogous color schemes combine colors that are located near each other on the color wheel. Blue + purple + red-purple is one analogous color scheme. Blue + blue-green + green is another. Analogous schemes can produce a beautiful, peaceful quilt or piece of clothing.
- Complementary color schemes use colors that are located opposite one another on the color wheel: red + green, blue + orange, or yellow + purple. These are the boldest combinations, and combining complementary colors makes them even bolder. The risk with this type of color scheme is producing a piece that looks too harsh or strident.
Everyone who sews or quilts has natural preferences for certain colors and color schemes. It’s usually easy to see these preferences by looking at your fabric stash or home decorating scheme. Making a conscious decision to work with a wide variety of colors, values, and intensities helps produce work that stays creatively fresh and interesting.