Color Theory Comes Into Play

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This post is part of a series about sewing NotQuilts. If you’re unfamiliar with this method, The NotQuilt series begins here.

All of the pink butterfly strips are sewn down. That means moving on to filling out the empty spaces with more strips of fabric. Which will require us later in this post to take a detour into color theory.

notquilt color theory

I want to use up my stash of pink and purple scrap, so I sorted through the bin, pulling all the appropriate bits of cloth.

Next came deciding what to use. I went back and forth, back and forth, on what piece to start with, finally deciding on a dark pink valentine-themed fabric, with cupids and lacy hearts.

How much did I have? Enough to make nine 2 1/2-inch strips. That isn’t many. I laid the strips horizontally against the Dragon Princess grid. I did not like how the pink of the valentine fabric was so close in value to the pink butterflies.

color theory notquilt

color theory

The two fabrics’ colors pop, but become harder to distinguish in black and white.


I decided to use the nine strips in the three empty squares in columns one, three, and five. They are evenly spaced across the fashion face. I also decided to put those strips up against Dragon Princess rather than against the pink butterflies. There wasn’t enough contrast.

A Quickie Excursion into Color Theory

Now is a good time to discuss color theory and why it matters in quilt tops. We’ll keep it simple.

Hue is the color, true, and undistorted. Outside of paint pots, you rarely see a true green, a true red, or a true blue. It is usually a bit different; a green that is a grassy shade rather than emerald; a red that has a bit of orange in it, a blue that is ever so slightly gray.

Tint means the hue has been lightened with white. The most obvious example is adding white to red, which gives you pink. Pink is so distinctive a shade that it gets its own name, as opposed to say, adding white to orange. That new color doesn’t get its own name, at least not in English. The more white you add, the paler and more washed out the color becomes. Pastels are tints.

Shade means the hue has been darkened with black. The more black you add, the darker the new color becomes. I don’t know of a word that corresponds to pastels to use when describing shaded colors.

Tone means the hue has been changed by adding gray, which, as you may guess, tones down the color. Adding gray doesn’t change a color nearly as much as adding black; you have to add more gray to get the same effect as a small amount of black. You can also change a color by adding its opposite color; that is, adding red to green changes the green to a browner color.

Value means the relative lightness or darkness of a color. The value of a piece of fabric will change, depending on what fabric it is sewn next to.

Saturation means how intense or dull the color is.

notquilt color theory wikipedia chart

In quilting, the one that matters the most is value. Two very different colors, say a bright red and a bright green, can have the same value. If you photograph them using black and white film, they come out as the same shade of gray. Colors that are quite different in hue, can read as the same shade from a distance. Two very light colors side by side can read a as a single light-colored patch. Two very dark colors side by side can read as a single dark patch.

This can really matter when you photograph your work. I’ve been looking through Liberated Quiltmaking by Gwen Marston (1996). Ms. Marston’s quilts don’t look like anything I’ve seen before, and they don’t look like what I’m doing either. (Her quilts were popular enough that she published a sequel.)

Gwen Marston Liberated quiltmaking

Gwen Marston

In looking at the photographs of the quilts, I keep seeing the same problem. Quite often, the pieces she cut and sewed into blocks look like they were made of single, larger pieces of fabric. The values of the fabric read so close together that I have to study the picture to see that yes, a particular rectangle is made up of three pieces of fabric and not one.

This may be a function of the age of the book, the photography process, the film used, my failing eyes, the reproduction of the photographs or it may be that she used cloth scraps that were similar in value.

Using printed fabric makes reading hue and value even more complicated. We all have fabric that when seen, en masse, reads as a certain color overall. Cut into a small triangle, however, and you may have cut the one green area out of a sea of orange. When you sew down that piece, even though overall most of those triangles read as orange, this triangle says green to the observer. This is why so many quilt fabrics have really teeny prints. When you cut them up, they still look similar from patch to patch.

When this happens, value becomes more important than ever. If the green triangle is a similar value to its orange brethren, from a distance the quilt pattern will still look sort of okay. If that green is dull and receding and the orange triangles are loud and brassy, the quilt will look like it has a hole.

Color Theory and Dragon Princess

I’m filling in the empty spaces in Dragon Princess with Roman stripes and I’m going to take advantage of value changes. I’m using similar hues, all shades of pink and purple. However, these pinks and purples range wildly from very light and pale to very dark and intense. The pink butterflies are quite a bit darker in value than Dragon Princess is and they, being the center strip in each empty square, will set the tone of the remaining strips.

Sewing down the dark pink cupid rectangles, carefully spaced across the fashion face, fits my design theme as they contrast strongly with Dragon Princess, yet are similar in value to the pink butterflies.

Each Dragon Princess empty square will be filled in with Roman stripes, reading across as dark, light, dark (the pink butterfly fabric), light, and dark. This will contrast strongly with the lighter overall pinkness of Dragon Princess and will make sure each Roman stripe reads as a separate unit from its siblings.

Paying attention to the value of each fabric will add more movement and value to the finished NotQuilt. The proof will be in the pudding, of course. As always, I won’t know for sure what Dragon Princess wants to be until she is finished.