Becoming an expert in colour value contrast will help make your quilts stand out from the crowd.
Last time we talked about how contrast is the key to producing an eye-catching quilt. If you missed that post, you might like to read my comprehensive overview of the types of contrast to consider when thinking about your next brilliant quilt. Today however, I want to start to elaborate further on just one of these types of contrast – using colour value contrast to give your quilt designs a facelift!
Colour value contrast is a quilt design fundamental you should master EARLY. Possibly even before the perfect 1/4″ seam……..!!
What is the very first thing you think of when I say “Add some contrast to your quilt.”? I bet your first response is something about using “light, medium and dark coloured fabrics”. This is colour value contrast.
Why do I think you will likely choose this form of contrast first and foremost, even though there are dozens of other ways to introduce contrast into a quilt? (And even though you’ve read my last post, right?!) It is because colour value contrast is one of the most fundamental design concepts used in great quilts. If you like looking at other people’s quilts, it is a concept you have already seen in action, possibly hundreds of times. We’ve all heard about it…. but do we really understand it? Let’s investigate and make sure…..
What is colour value and colour value contrast?
Colour value is defined most simply as the relative lightness or darkness of a colour (read “fabric”!). So, there are two parts to colour value:
the properties of a colour, and
the colour’s context.
A colour can be described as light, dark or medium. Really light and really dark value colours are fairly straight forward….. they tend to look light or dark in any context. However, medium value fabrics are more tricky. They have a habit of looking light next to dark fabrics and dark next to light fabrics. And these tricky fabrics are generally the ones that quilters buy in great lengths and hoard in stash. Because medium value colours are the most attractive.
However, as pretty as these fabrics are, if you only use medium colour value fabrics in a quilt it is very difficult to produce a “WOW” design. This is why you need colour value contrast. Effective colour value contrast is the art of using a range of colour values to create a design that is well-defined, pleasing to the eye and interesting to the brain.
Why is colour value contrast so important?
If you pick up a recently written quilt book , chances are that somewhere in the introduction there will be a short section about choosing fabrics. And in this section, you will be reminded to choose fabrics covering a range of colour values. If you’ve ever joined a class to sew a particular quilt pattern, I hope you’ve heard it there too. And you’re hearing it again here! This is because it is great advice and if you do not heed it, you will get a disappointing result. You will wonder why your quilt doesn’t capture you like the demonstrator’s/pattern’s example did.
Have you ever wondered why a quilt you’ve made looks flat, boring or dull; even though you used really really beautiful fabrics in colours that you love?
You might have wrongly assumed that it is because you can’t sew as well as “her”, or that you are just not talented enough at choosing fabrics. If you inner voice tries to tell you this, it is wrong, wrong, wrong! – You just need to get a better handle on using colour value contrast! If you are the victim of a boring quilt, the most likely culprit is that you have used too many fabrics of the same or similar colour value. Even if the actual colours are all different (ie red, blue, green etc) they can still be much the same value. The easiest way to see if this is the problem is to stand a good distance from your quilt. If the pattern disappears as you move away, you do not have enough colour value contrast.
Using different colour values properly in a quilt creates visual depth and adds definition to the design. Colour value contrast also changes the way the brain perceives colours – dark fabrics make mid colours appear brighter, while light fabrics make mid colours appear more intense. Colour value contrast causes people to notice those beautiful fabrics you’ve invested in and to see the fabulous layout of your pattern. It makes your quilt eye-catching.
Ok, so I can see that mastering colour value contrast would help me grow as a quilter…… What can I do?!
Like anything else, becoming proficient at choosing good fabric combinations takes practise. Try some of these suggestions:
If you have a stash, play with your fabrics to make colour combinations you like (you could use scraps to do this too). First, choose a couple of medium value fabrics that you really like together. Now find several more fabrics that look good with these Concentrate on making sure they are noticeably lighter or darker than your first choices. You may actually find that your stash is pretty short on light and/or dark fabrics….. you won’t be alone in this, it is quite common, and a good excuse for shopping!!
Find out more about how expert quilters use colour value contrast….. Attend a quilt show and deliberately look for the colour value contrast in your favourite quilts. Or read more about how colour value is used in quilting. You may like to read my article: Six ways talented quilt designers use colour value.
In the meantime, look around you as you go about everyday life and notice colour value contrasts. Train your brain to see where colour values are used to create interest. Whether in the supermarket, reading a magazine, or relaxing at the park, be “contrast aware”. You might be surprised at what you see that you didn’t before!
P.S. If you found this article helpful, please feel free to pin and share as long as you include attribution to Dione Gardner-Stephen and the correct Clever Chameleon URL. Thanks!
P.P.S. I know some tricks you can use to rescue boring quilts suffering from lack of colour value contrast. Comment if you are interested in a post about this!
How do you get people to stop in their tracks for your quilt? Because whether it’s at home on your own wall, or hanging in a quilt show – it’s nice when people notice and appreciate your art!
Large quilt exhibitions are busy spaces. They are busy with wandering people, information stands, demonstrators and most likely, raffle competitions. Then there are the multitudes of quilts, all vying for attention. If you stand back and watch the visitors, they are mostly scanning….. looking to see what there is to see. If a quilt doesn’t grab their attention in the first few seconds they move on to the next. They naturally gravitate to the next eye-catching quilt.
Do you want people to pause at your quilt and take a closer look? Of course you do – you put a lot of effort into it and you found the courage to enter it into a show (or decorate your home with it).! Here’s the good news! Your quilt doesn’t have to get the blue ribbon (or any ribbon) to be a people-stopper. It doesn’t have to be an amazing pictorial quilt or brightly coloured to be an eye-catching quilt. It doesn’t even need to have a ridiculously complicated design. The one most important feature of a quilt that will make people pause in that first crucial moment is Contrast.
The first and foremost trick to producing an eye-catching quilt is to get the Contrast right.
Double check that you are alone and say it out loud for me… “Contrast”……. It really is that important!
Before I go any further, I want to digress just a little. Just in case you are thinking…….
“But I don’t want to show my quilts, I just want to make fantastic quilts for myself and the people I love. I’m trawling the internet because I don’t want to be that quilter who is always complaining that people don’t appreciate my really expensive, really time-consuming gifts!”
If this is you, then contrast is still your friend and you are in the right place. There are certainly other factors at play when designing a quilt as a gift, but let’s just concentrate on this one thing for now….. Getting the contrast right.
Back to basics – planning an eye-catching quilt from the very beginning
Let’s be honest. Most of us quilters do not start a quilt by thinking about contrast. We usually get bogged down in choosing colours – unless we are still deliberating over the pattern. The colour and quilt pattern choices available seem overwhelmingly endless and it often matters greatly to us which pattern and colours we choose because we have a certain destination or recipient in mind.
Yet, while there is probably little point making a red quilt for someone who adores teal, or a dog quilt for a cat person, this still leaves us with a problem. And that is: the teal or cat quilt that lacks some sort of additional appeal is probably still going to end up in the cupboard or worse when your back is turned. The lacklustre quilt at the show gets ignored. And you miss out on a whole world of pleasure and satisfaction. despite all that effort. So what’s a thinking, caring quilter like you to do then?!
Treat quilting as the art form that we know it is, and brush up on some art basics!
Contrast is the foundation of a good quilt
I believe that a lack of contrast is one of the most common design decisions that lets down otherwise brilliant quilts. Once you understand the concept of contrast, you can evaluate your patterns and colour choices much more easily and change ordinary quilts into something special. If you think about contrast at each design step you will always end up with a better quilt than if you don’t. So the best thing for you to do is to become so familiar with this concept that it becomes second nature. Contrast provides interest. Contrast provides excitement and drama. Contrast provides depth and focal points. Fascinating contrasts are often visual, but they can also be emotional or tactile. Are you getting a sense of how integral this concept is to a great quilt?! Yes? Fantastic!
How to Use Contrast to create an Eye-Catching Quilt
There are five main types of contrast I can think of that really matter for quilts. Contrast in colour value, Contrast in form, Contrast in scale, Contrast in placement and Contrast in texture. Use them wisely and sparingly (too much of a good thing is Too Much), and you are a long way towards creating a great quilt. So let’s explore each briefly in turn today and I will expand further on each as my blog grows.
Contrast using colour value
Contrast is most easily achieved in a quilt by using fabrics that cover a range of colour values. Colour value is defined as the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. So to have a range of values in your design means that your quilt will use light, medium and dark fabrics, regardless of their colour. In the photo of fabrics above there is a range of colours (yellow, green, brown, blue). There is also a range of values (light and dark).
There are many ways you can incorporate colour value contrast into a quilt, but let’s start with one of the simplest examples; one that most quilters will be able to relate to. Let’s choose a traditional, pieced quilt block and pretend to create it out of several fabrics of the same colour but of differing values.
A simple example:
Let’s look at the log cabin block. Below are three diagrams of a log cabin block made in blue fabrics of varying values, with or without white. Now, there are two things to notice. The first is that how much contrast you choose to use will affect what a block looks like. And the second is that where you choose to use that contrast within the block will also greatly affect how your eye interprets the block. This is because of the way the fabrics contrast or blend with their neighbouring fabrics.
The contrast structure that you choose for the basic log cabin block then in turn affects how you can use it to create an eye-catching quilt. Here are three simple quilts that you could make using 16 direct repeats of the basic log cabin blocks in the diagrams above.
Three blue log cabin blocks, three extraordinarily different quilt designs. Try to place aside your personal preferences and think about which quilt you would notice first from across the room……
Chances are you have said B or C. These are high contrast designs, relying on contrasting colour value for their effect. You may not personally like them (or you may) but either way, they are eye-catching. Design A is a low contrast design. Low contrast designs make fantastic backgrounds where you might otherwise be tempted to use a single fabric. To turn design A into an eye-catching quilt, you would need to layer it with another form of contrast, ie contrast in form, scale, placement or texture.
Contrast using shape and form
When you are deciding on a quilt design you can introduce contrast by using a variety of shapes (ie squares, triangles, circles etc). This is known as contrast in form. An example of a high contrast choice in this category would be curved shapes mixed with straight-sided shapes (eg circles vs squares). A low contrast choice of shapes would be circles mixed with irregular but curved blobs of a similar size.
Have a look at “Pomegranates and Peaches” above. The piecing is very obviously made up of squares and rectangles set in rows and columns. But the featured fruit is a collection of round shapes that I also set on a curve for effect. These juxtapositions encourage you to look at the quilt longer than if it was just a simple convergence quilt of straight lines. Lots of contemporary art quilts and modern quilts use contrast in form to great effect.
Contrast using scale
What would you do though, if you decided that you really like quilts with circles and didn’t want lots of straight lines confusing the issue? One type of contrast that would work in this case would be to use circles of different sizes. This is called contrast in scale.
Have another look at “Pomegranates and Peaches”. The round pomegranates are echoed by small and medium circular fruits in three of the pieced fabrics. So this quilt also utilises contrast in scale….. although when I made it I didn’t think about the prints mostly being circles. I simply chose fabrics with a variety of scale in the prints – large fruits and small fruits.
Secondary designs as sources of contrast:
Sometimes you don’t need to deliberately include contrast in scale into your quilt. Sometimes this occurs naturally as a secondary design of colour value contrast! Look again at the log cabin quilt examples from earlier. From a distance, log cabin quilt B looks like it is made of squares of varying sizes. This is purely because of the colour value and placement choices that I made, and doesn’t occur for the other two designs.
Contrast using placement
You can readily find good, simple examples of eye-catching quilts that use contrast in placement by looking at quilts from the modern quilt movement. What you are looking for are quilts with a repeated motif, like a line or a triangle. Now look to see whether these repeated shapes are varied in their spacing relative to each other, or in their direction relative to each other (or both). This is contrast in placement.
Your can also combine contrast of placement with contrast of scale to give a design a sense of movement. This is going to have to be a topic for another day, but it is a very fun design tool.
Just before we move on though, I will show you a more traditional example of using contrast in placement. In the log cabin example from earlier, I have rotated some of the log cabin blocks of design C to generate a completely different design for you. I think that the original design, with the 16 directly repeated blocks is a very ordered, slightly harsh design. Every block is an independent focal point. The design to the right however, draws the eye into the middle of the quilt and out to the corners. The blocks work together and the design is easier to look at. This difference is caused by the introduced contrast in placement. Which design you prefer will of course depend on your own personal preferences and what you are trying to achieve.
Contrast using texture
One of the fabulous things about quilting is that most of the design happens in 2D but the actual crafting has a lot of the fun of a 3D art form. Many of us, myself included, are much more comfortable designing in two dimensions than three. I can get my head around things in two dimensions and I can represent my ideas accurately on a piece of paper without having a meltdown. But when I get to the quilting and embellishing phase of the quilt process, it has all the lovely tactile qualities of a 3D art form. You can touch and feel a quilt in a way that you just can’t do with a painting or drawing.
To make the most of the 3D aspects of a quilt you can consider adding textures as surface elements or as an integral aspect of quilt construction.
Using contrast in texture
Texture in the fabric of the quilt:
One suggestion for adding texture to quilts is to simply use multiple types of fabrics to piece the quilt sandwich. The quilt police have had their day; a quilt top does not have to be made exclusively of quilting weight cotton (or any quilting weight cotton at all for that matter)! Anyway, there are loads of fabric types that make great quilts, either for your bed or the wall. Another thing you can do to add texture at the construction phase is add features such as piping, prairie points, fabric origami, cathedral windows, gathers and pleats.
Examples of surface additions that give texture are beads, buttons, costume jewellery, paper, plastic, recycled and found items…. the options are probably endless, especially if your quilt is intended for the wall.
Adding texture with quilting
A rule of thumb says “quilts should be quilted evenly all over”. Break the rules, not your thumbs, I say. You do need to have enough quilting all over your quilt to stabilise your quilt and stop the batting moving inside. But you will not ruin your quilt with areas of denser quilting on a quilt with quality batting. What you will do is add contrasts of texture into your quilt. Indeed, this is actually what a good trapunto quilt relies on – a heavily quilted background with the padded design sparsely quilted. If its good enough for trapunto, then its good enough for other quilts too.
You can add also add colour and scale contrasts to your eye-catching quilt using quilting. Lori Kennedy runs a great blog on free-motion quilting and has recently discussed using quilting to provide contrast at the quilting stage through contrasting threads, contrasting scale and contrasting density. For more ideas, read Lori’s article here.
Even the most traditional forms of quilting can lend themselves to contrast. Find out what I discovered about contrast in form, scale and direction while I was learning to quilt feathers recently in this post: Quilting Feathers for Beginners.
A Final Thought on Contrast – specifically for Show Quilts
Here’s a final thought for those of you who do like to show quilts, or would like to show quilts. There is one more layer of contrast to consider to grab your audience’s attention. Will your quilt stand out among the others, or will they all look the same? What can you do to your quilt to make it different to everyone else’s? Think outside the box. Can you tweak your design to add in something unexpected or re-interpret a traditional block perhaps? Call it innovation, uniqueness, or individuality….. at the end of the day, if your quilt is well designed and a bit different to all the others around it – if it tells your quilt story not everyone else’s – people will stop and look.
And Before I Go, a Word of Caution!
Like most things, contrast can be overdone. To reap the benefits, you must use contrast wisely. If you feature too many contrasts in one quilt, the design will get lost in busyness and will not come together as a single entity. The viewer will not know where to look first! Don’t add lots and lots of contrast at the construction stage if you plan to add lots and lots of contrast at the quilting stage. The different forms of contrast will fight for attention and your quilt will be the worse for it.
Choose just a few contrasts wisely at each step of your quilt creation process and your quilt will sing. And when your quilts sing, you are Quilting your Own Story.
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