June 30, 2022
by Victoria Watkins
What makes color look good? Particularly, what makes colors look good in relation to one another? Having spent nearly half of my life practicing visual art, my immediate reaction is intuitive, something like, "I know it when I see it." However, to those among us who prefer fiber arts over mixing up oil paints, the finer nuances of color theory may be confusing. This is reflected in the update our owner Molly gave me from a recent workshop on the embroidery for the 142 Old Mexico Dress pattern. Some of the class noted that they found it confusing or intimidating to pick colors that worked well together. With that in mind, today's blog is a brief look into color theory, which is the study of how to apply colors in creative works.
There is so much to be said on the subject of color, but to be brief, there are three main components that make up what we call a color: hue, value, and saturation. Hue is what we generally mean when we refer to something as having a color. Red, green, and blue are examples of hues. To help you understand how hue is different from color as a whole, think about the difference between a highlighter and a school bus. They're both yellow hued, but certainly different colors. What makes them different are their values and saturation. Saturation refers to the concentration of the hue, while value (also referred to as brightness) refers to how "dark" or "light" the color is. This can be confusing until we think of color in terms of mixing paints, as art-based color theory does. To be less saturated, the hue has to be mixed with something else, either white, black, or grey. The amount of mixture creates the saturation, while the choice along the spectrum from white to black determines the value.
This all may be understandably confusing to folks who have not experimented with painting before, so don't worry if it feels overwhelming. The important thing to know is that there are three qualities that combine to create the variety of colors we see, and by choosing different variations on each of those qualities, we can create color combinations that are either harmonious or off-putting. While we can't mix paints ourselves to get the right color embroidery thread, we can definitely use these concepts to choose from the huge selection of skeins to select the perfect set of colors.
The key to understanding color relationships and building your intuition for choosing colors is to understand contrast. Contrast is the amount to which a quality is different to another quality. For example, white and black are considered to be high contrast because they're the furthest distance apart possible on the value scale. Similarly, anything along the black/white value scale is high contrast when compared to a highly saturated hue. Hue can be in contrast with itself around the color wheel, with the highest amounts of contrast being referred to as "complementary colors", which you may have heard of.
In essence, the way to have good color harmony is to think about contrast along one or more of these spectrums. If two or more colors that you choose have the same exact amount of two of the qualities, there needs to be a reasonable amount of contrast in the third. For example, if the value and saturation are the exact same, the hue should be different enough to make the colors stand out from one another. Good hue contrast is generally thought to be at least three "steps" away from each other on the color wheel. Otherwise, they become hard to distinguish and aren't very eye catching. Take the colors below for example. They're different, sure, but are they different enough?
What happens if we dramatically change the saturation (top), the value (middle), or the hue (bottom)? In the new version, each change creates a different conversation between the left and right. While they're not necessarily the sort of color palette I'd choose for myself, the four of them even look somewhat interesting together, too.
While we can make any number of changes to differentiate between two colors, the real balancing act is when we start looking at three or more. For beginners, my recommended strategy is to either focus on a single hue with different values and saturations (monochromatic), or different hues with an emphasis on their relationship to one another on the color wheel. Complementary, split complementary, analogous, and triad arrangements are some of the relationships you can choose from to make sure everything looks harmonious together. Don't forget to take the color(s) of your fabric into consideration as well!
By Shnatsel - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17323196
Here is an example of staying with the same hue but changing the saturation (and a tiny bit of the value too, just based on my color-choosing instincts).
For a non-monochromatic look, here's a scheme built off of a split-complementary arrangement. Purple and a yellowish green form part of the split-complementary triangle, with pumpkin orange being the third. However, because that would be a very Halloween-ish combo, I left out the orange and instead tweaked the value and saturation of the purple and green to create a vibrant set of colors.
Hopefully, this crash course in color theory will be enough to get you started on choosing embroidery threads that work for your projects. When in doubt, you can always pay close attention to nature, as well as art and design that you see while out and about. Have fun, and happy hue hunting!