Applying Art Principles to Quilting; Part 1 – Colour

I am not an expert in art.

I even hesitate writing about it, knowing many of you are more artistic than I am. But I have tried to find art information specific to quilting. This post is to share my findings with you – and hopefully the writing part will help me remember!

Yesterday I attended a workshop called “Using Colour Can’t Scare Me” by artist/designer Bethany Garner. Last fall I took a Colour Confidence class from Laurie Ceesay at the Houston International Quilt Show. And I have been in seminars held by Karen Gillis Taylor, Pam Holland and Ricky Tims. All experts. All enjoyable. But all focused primarily on art quilts.

I hope that I will be able to apply the information I received on all my future art quilts, but at this point I am still trying to get a bed quilt right. Most of the art quilts use hand dyed fabric. I love hand dyed fabric, but won’t be making a bed quilt with it any time soon. Most art quilts are embellished with paint, buttons, or beads. Again, not likely on a bed quilt.

In my past sewing life of garment and home decor, I found patterns, found one fabric I loved, another 4 or 5 coordinating fabrics and then made multiple pieces of clothing that all worked with each other.

My first ever quilt (the Yellow Brick Road) called for 15 fat quarters in two colours. The staff at the quilt store were very helpful, but finding 15 coordinating fabrics in 2 colours is very different than finding 4 with one focus fabric!

Then you cut the fabric up, and the small pieces no longer contain all the colours of the larger piece.

Then you sew the pieces together, and you begin to have serious doubts. Pieces you would not normally put together are side by side.  Unlike garment construction, seams are not only visible, they form an integral part of the quilt.

Then you put the blocks together, and the look changes again. Primary and secondary patterns emerge, nothing like the fabrics you started with.

Then you make more colour decisions when you pick out your quilting threads. Quilting is whole other dimension! Light threads on dark; dark threads on light. Your quilt is bound to have one or the other, and information on this 3-D effect is seldom addressed.

I have taken many quilting books from the library in search of this information. One of the best was “Make and Love Quilts” by Mary K Fons. Most have a chapter on colour, and then simply talk about the colour wheel. Personally, I think the colour wheel is the most over rated tool ever(!) when it comes to quilting. In one of the workshops I attended, the instructor had us glue solid pieces of fabric around the colour wheel. How do you apply that to a bed quilt? Where on the colour wheel do you place a heavily patterned piece of fabric that contains a dozen colours? What about the large pieces of patterned fabrics that change when they are cut into small pieces? Where do you place the mottled batiks? How do you deal with colour when using fabrics that have a small amount but strong metallic elements (like the Japanese)? Where on the colour wheel do you place a fabric with two different but equal amounts of colour? Then, how do you apply that when you are picking 15 different fabrics, or 80 as I had to do on the split log cabin quilt I talked about a few weeks ago? Somehow I have a hard time applying talks of primary, tertiary, complementary and split complementary colours to my world of quilt making.

In another workshop the instructor talked about value and had us place 20 sheets of construction paper in value from light to dark. Again, I did not know how to apply that to a quilt, especially when using prints.

Maybe time solves everything. Maybe in time I will be able to visualize the finished product. Maybe in time I will learn to appreciate the colour wheel. Maybe in time I will make all the right decisions.  In the meantime, let me share with you some of what I have learned from the experts:

  • Colour creates unity and balance. This can be obtained when you keep borders, the squares of an Irish chain, the center square on a log cabin or other similar pattern pieces in the same colour family and of the same colour value.
  • Colour creates a mood, so think about the purpose your quilt will have, and the mood you want to set.
    • green is fresh and natural. It is restful for the eye and suggests stability and endurance. It has a strong emotional correspondence with safety.
    • blue is a cool restful colour that suggests serenity and dependability.
    • yellow is optimistic and happy but it is intense. It pops against all other colours. In most cases, moderation is required. One author suggests a 6:1 ratio (6 parts purple to 1 part yellow).
    • orange is flamoyant and controversial
    • red is stimulating and passionate. Some say that one red will go with every other red.
    • pink suggests love and tenderness.
    • purple is mysterious, rich and creative.
    • brown is earthy and comforting.
    • grey is neutral and everlasting. If you like modern, then grey is the new ‘little black dress’ that goes with everything.
    • black is sophisticated, classic and suggests power.
    • white provides balance and makes the other colours pop.
  • neutrals create balance. Neutrals + Scraps = balance. A patterned neutral is a piece that can go more than 1 way
  • solids give your eye a place to rest
  • tone-on-tone add visual interest
  • geometrics hold the eye
  • if using florals, mix large and small ones for variety
  • international fabrics create drama
  • novelty prints can be a challenge but cal also be the central element of a quilt
  • white noise is usually a piece with low contrast. Put them against a piece with high contrast so that you don’t get mud.
  • Value does all the work but Colour gets all the credit. Value, or the contrast between light and dark, is more important than colour. It is the secret ingredient that creates depth, and establishes the design. Value also expands and contracts. Dark values grouped together seem dense, light values seem airy.
  • Contrast is ALWAYS relative. It depends on what fabrics are placed next to it, and how it reads from 6 feet away.
  • the focal point if where the contrast is the greatest. Decrease contrast in areas that you do not want to accentuate.
  • More is sometimes better. A design that is not scrappy enough can look uncoordinated and limited. A fabric that is not right will stick out. Adding more fabrics, and cutting them smaller really does work.
  • quilts with repeat blocks need fabrics with strong contrast
  • when quilting, thread that is a couple shades darker is more forgiving. When you want to highlight the quilting, use a couple shades lighter.
  • use bright colours for modern quilts and subdued colours for traditional quilts.
  • warm colours (reds/yellows) and light values come forward; cool colours (blues/greens) and dark values recede. When you are substituting fabrics, consider whether it is an accent piece or a background piece. Different colours of the same value can work.
  • colours also have different visual impacts. Warm colours feel heavier than cool colours. Consider the placement of your warm colours and dark values so that your quilt will feel balanced. One example of this would be a watercolour quilt.
  • when working with analogous colours (3-4 colours beside each other on the colour wheel), include a ‘popper’ in a very small amount from across the colour wheel.
  • go for the Maverick Moment – blocks that diverge from general repetition. Make a block of an unexpected deviant colour; 95% happy, 5% risk. It’s unexpected, wierd and playful.

This has been rather a long post (with no pictures!) but I hope you get something out of it. Please feel free to post comments and give me your suggestions. They are all very welcome! Have a great week.

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About Judy's Quilting Studio

Creator of all things quilted; minimalist in everything except fabric!
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4 Responses to Applying Art Principles to Quilting; Part 1 – Colour

  1. Noella says:

    I’m not crazy about using a color wheel either. I just kind of go with colors that I like and make me feel good and then hope for the best.

  2. Marnie Houston says:

    Good post with good tips. I’m going to have to keep this for a reference or print it off and put it up on my sewing bulletin board. I never used to “fret” about colors and how they go together until I started taking classes. Now I just think about what looks good, LOL! So sometimes too much information just boggles the mind, at least mine.

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