Color Theory

My mind has been in a really quilty place lately. I've been designing blocks in my head while driving home from work or making dinner. Unfortunately, if I don't get these ideas down on paper (and then on fabric) it will completely consume me. Here's a little peek into my brain, by the way.... if I don't purge this stuff from my head, I will become completely creatively blocked. This is how my creative process operates.

I don't know if I can call myself a "quilter". I have dabbled with the process but I am in no way an expert. So, you might be wondering why a novice like me thinks I can somehow design quilts. Well, let me tell ya...a big part of quilting is just graphic design and color theory. And that's the part I can do with gusto, the technical sewing part is the part with the learning curve.

The creativity of the Gee's Bend quilts rivals any modern artist.
Quilting appeals to the trained artist in me. When I look at a traditional quilt I appreciate it for it's color balance and overall abstract geometric design. When in perfect symmetry or perfect controlled chaos it can really sing. It appeals to me in the same way painting does, and I think that's why I use the same critical eye when viewing them.

Are you a seasoned (or new) quilter who possibly stresses out when choosing fabrics? This would be because achieving the balance between so many pieces of pattern and color can be overwhelmingly complex. But if you understand some basic color theory, these creative choices can be much easier. Here is a very breezy overview of color theory:

Colors fall into 3 groups...
Primary: You know these as red, yellow, and blue
Secondary: Mixing primary colors gets you purple, green, and orange
Tertiary: These are the colors you get when you mix the primary and secondary colors (i.e. the many shades of yellow-green)

A simple color wheel.
You may say... But, Cassandra, how do I apply these simple principles to an actual project? You take these groups of colors and use them in "families". There are a mess of them, but these two are the ones I dip into for guidance most often:

Complementary Colors: On the actual color wheel, these colors are directly across from one another. Believe it or not, when these two colors are mixed together, they create a neutral color. Seriously cool huh? Some examples would be red and green or blue and orange. When designing with complementary colors it is best to balance the use of the two colors so that they don't compete with each other. For example:

Color harmony in action.
One of the best examples of the use of complementary color is a 7up can. The green can with the red dot is beautifully done. There is just enough red to complement the green without competing. Have you ever looked at a fashion magazine and seen something that designers like to call a "pop of color"? This is how that pop of color works. Look at product packaging and other designs that appeal to you and see if you can find the balance between complementary colors. It takes practice to find this balance and you have to exercise your eye for it.

Analogous Colors: Let me share a secret with you. Using analogous colors is sort of fool-proof. These colors are next to each other on the color wheel. A group of three like red, red-orange, and orange make a very appealing palette. It is simple to use because the color variations are subtle and therefore it is difficult to make a mistake when trying to blend them together tastefully.

Lovely analogous room.
When you are designing something such as quilt blocks, you can tackle this palette a couple ways. You can make one of your colors dominant and use the other two as support colors, or you could use them in equal doses for a balanced pattern.

When you get more sophisticated with your use of color families, you can use one or more of these theories in a piece. For instance, you could have a quilt with only analogous greens and the binding could be done in complementary red for balance.

I'd also like to mention that colors also fall into either warm or cool categories. Cool colors such as blue, seem to recede in space while warm colors such as red, tend to advance. This is something to consider when designing with color. You can use both light and dark or cool and warm to achieve depth.

There are volumes written on the subject and I even had an entire semester devoted to this topic back in my school days. It is technical and sort of boring, however, it can make the difference between a design being stunning or just okay. This applies whether we are talking about a quilt, interior design, or even a colorful handbag added to your outfit. If you are interested in knowing more about this topic (I have merely scratched the surface here), go ahead and Google "color theory". It is actually pretty fascinating. But, if you merely use the guidance I've given here, you can still make an impact on your work.



  1. I love colour theory, and you've explained it really nicely :) I love quilts like the one you pictured, graphic and striking. Almost enough to make me want to start quilting (I suck at sewing though!)

    1. @Pinkundine: I still think your have the chops to become a seamstress!

  2. You must be reading my mind! Picking out the colors for a quilt is the hardest part me. I, too, have a million quilty thoughts in my head! Your explanations are great and I just love that room photo you totally makes sense!

    1. @Angela: so glad my post was helpful. I think you are underestimating your color sense though...your latest quilt is amazing!