Six ways Talented Quilters use Colour Value

Talented quilt designers use colour value in a variety of ways. Choose one or two uses of colour value to spice up your next quilt!

Over the last few posts we have been thinking about improving our quilt designs by understanding the design concepts of contrast and colour value. Now let’s look at six key effects of using deliberate, creative use of colour value. These uses of colour value direct the eye and help the brain to interpret your quilt in a certain way. Most simply put; how you choose to contrast or blend each part of a quilt design can dramatically change how your quilt looks.

1. Use Colour Value Contrast to give a quilt design definition:

When it comes to making spectacular quilts, it is the colour value range that is more important than the actual colours. You can do a fabulous geometric quilt in all pinks. There is no reason at all why you can’t do an amazing flamingo all in blues. A beautiful lush landscape quilt could definitely be created all in purples. As long as you use colour value contrast to define your design.

Where you want a shape to be obvious, it must contrast in colour value with the surrounding fabrics. However, if you want an area of many pieces to be interpreted as a single shape, the opposite is true. To blend areas, the most important thing is to use colours of similar values (ie very little colour value contrast). The second thing to do is contrast them as a group with at least one colour that is quite different – the “us against them” principle.

Take a Jacob’s ladder block as an example (below).

Jacob's Ladder quilt examples showing differences in colour value contrast
Design A shows a high contrast choice of colour values, where the geometry of the Jacob’s Ladder is the main feature of the design. Design B shows the same design done in multiple colours. The design is still obvious because all the colours are closer in value to each other than  they are to the background (white). This makes the brain interpret them as one related entity that is seperate from the background. Design C shows what happens when colour value contrast is not considered in tandem with the block layout. The colour value contrast in this quilt is randomly distributed. The effect is still pretty, but the Jacob’s Ladder design is lost and a completely different (not wrong) quilt results.

Knowing which fabrics will blend or contrast is the secret to successful scrappy quilts, Irish Chains and log cabin designs, just to mention a few.

Remember, deliberately blending fabric squares with their neighbours is a valid design choice. An example of this is the Disappearing Nine-Patch quilt. Knowing how colour value works simply gives you the power to design your quilts to be how you want them.

2. Use Colour Value Contrast to create depth:

In pictorial quilts, light value fabrics create highlights and dark value fabrics create shadows. But there is far more to understand about creating depth in quilts than just shadows and highlights. Did you know that if the values of two fabrics are similar, their shapes will seem closely connected in space and none will stand out from the others? To cause shapes to appear to be seperate in space and stand out form each other, it is necessary to use fabrics with contrasting colour values.

Use colour value contrast to create depth: tree example
Look at the bottom panel in this figure,  This picture appears very very flat. In the top panel however, your brain wants to interpret depth, with the darker trees gradually receding, even though they are the same size as the lightest tree.
tree scene showing how to use colour value contrast
Have a look at the two simple scenes. The scene on the left is easier for the brain to interpret because the bigger trees are also lighter in value…. two agreeing cues that these trees are the closest.

Also you should keep in mind that shapes made of light colours visually “come forward”. This means they appear closer to the viewer than other areas of a quilt. Therefore, you can deliberately bring things into the foreground of a quilt by using light fabrics. Conversely, you can make features recede into the background when you add them in darker colours. 

All of these effects are independent of the colour hue (ie red, blue, yellow etc). It is only the values (relative lightness and darkness) of the colours that matter.

3. Use Colour Value Contrast to convey feelings and action:

Colour values can convey concepts such as mood or change. For example, a dark region in a quilted sky will probably make you think of an impending storm. Conversely, a light patch will convey sunshine. This works even if the quilt is completely abstract and you use colours that are not true-to-life. Yet these effects are mostly lost if the whole sky is evenly coloured in the darker or lighter colours. It is the change in colour value that causes the brain to interpret the meaning. 

4. Use Colour Value blending to create illusions of luminosity and light-sinks:

Graduating colour value can be used in quilts to enormous effect. One of my favourite effects created by graduating colour value is luminosity. When you start in the centre of a quilt design with a light colour and add rings or layers of increasingly darker colours around the original shape you create the illusion of luminosity. Luminous quilts tend to convey happiness and hope. Conversely, starting in the centre with dark value fabrics and graduating to lighter fabrics gives the illusion of a dark hole. Both effects are stunning when done right.

Luminous quilt block with four luminous corners.
Quilt block with four “luminous” log cabin corners.

This effect is often seen used in concentric quilt designs. Concentric just means “sharing a centre”. So concentric quilt designs are those that have a small shape in the centre that is surrounded by echoes of that shape gradually increasing in size. “Around the World” and “Blooming Nine-Patch” quilts are good examples of whole-quilt concentric designs. You can also incorporate luminosity into individual blocks of a quilt, to create lots of smaller focal points. An example is “Light in the Valley” quilts.

Luminosity is not confined to concentric quilts – it can easily be incorporated into non-symmetric designs and landscapes as well. Sunset quilts are one common example of this. 

5. Use Colour Value Contrast to make colours more vibrant:

If you place contrasting value fabrics side by side they will make each other look more brilliant. Think of a dark silhouette in front of a sunset…. the sunset is magnified in beauty by the dark contrast. Black makes colours look brighter. White makes colours look darker. These are the extreme examples of this principle. Colours closer in value to each other will have the same effect on each other, but more subtly.

If you only use colours of the same value together, they can end up looking “washed out”. So, the takeaway message? Add a few lighter or darker colours to your quilt to maintain the beauty of your fabulous main fabrics.

6. Colour Value is critical for creating the illusion of three dimensions:

Use colour value to make illusion of three dimensional 3D block
You can represent three dimensions with colour values. Here is a square-based prism in three values of one colour.

Blending colour values gives the illusion of 3-dimensional shape and form to flat objects. This is the same principle as shading in a pencil drawing and is colour independent. Again it is the colour value of the fabrics that matter. You can make round features look three dimensional by gradually graduating from light to dark fabrics in any colour.  You can create the look of flat edged 3D shapes using sharp changes in colour value. Tumbling block quilts use this second principle, as do other three dimensional illusions.

Realistic pictorial quilts generally use gradual changes in colour value to convey shape and substance.

So, what’s next?

If you’ve got this far, you’re probably wanting to better use colour value contrast to create better quilts. In this case, there are three things I recommend for you to do next. Firstly, get a really good handle on the theory of what colour value is and how it applies to quilts! Secondly, have a critical look at lots of quilts and decide what you like or dislike about their use of colour value contrast. This will help you decide what suits you and your quilt story. And thirdly, find a reliable method that you like to help you determine the colour values of your fabrics – so that there are no nasty surprises after your quilt top is finished and it doesn’t look right. Then start applying what you know to your quilt design process and grow as you go!

  • If you want to know more about colour value theory and how it applies to quilts, my next post will cover it nicely. Colour Value Theory for Quilters – What you need to know! is scheduled for the 4 June 2017. Subscribe to read it as soon as it is published.
  • If you want to see a variety of quilts that illustrate the principles of colour value contrast and blending that I have covered in this post, visit my especially curated Pinterest board: Colour Value Contrast discussion quilts. I have labelled each pin on this board with relevant features to take notice of. Have a critical look at them. What can you notice about the way the artist has used colour value?
  • If you want to know which tools I recommend to determine the colour value of your fabrics, subscribe to my blog to receive notification or come back in a week or two. I am halfway through writing a post on exactly that!

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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!

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