The Polaroid Sew-Along: Color Theory

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

This post is a part of my series on color. For more posts in this series, click here. For the first post which gives a basic introduction to COLOterms and definitions, click here!

This post is meant to work in conjunction with my Sew-Alongs. It is a place to start when choosing colors for your quilts. It was originally released as a part of The Polaroid Sew-Along 2017.

Next up in the series on color, I’d like to talk a little bit about the color wheel, and some basic guidelines for selecting colors to use in quilts. This can be applied to your project for the Polaroid Sew-Along as you consider your background colors.

The Color Wheel

In grade school, we were taught the very basics on color, color mixing, and color relationships. Anything beyond the basics would have been studied in more depth at university or on your own time. Hopefully this article will expand your knowledge a bit, or maybe remind you of the fundamentals. I hope that it does shine light on some new information for you, and helps you with color making decisions in the future!

The Polaroid Sew Along ColorsPrimary Colors

Red, Blue, and Yellow, right? Eeeeeeh…. no exactly. I would inwardly cringe whenever my girls would come home and show me the color wheel that they proudly painted in school. I would see red, blue, and yellow on the outside, and a big mess of muddy, dull colors in the middle where they mixed them together. Here’s the thing about primary colors: in order to be able to determine what is primary, we need a really good, solid definition to start. So, what is a Primary Color? I like to think of them as colors that you can’t reach by mixing two other colors together. They are pure color, with no hints of other colors in them.

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Red, blue, and yellow are a very elementary way to view the primary colors, and the only color that truly belongs in that list is yellow! Red and blue are *not* primary colors, especially the red and blue washable paint that they market for kids. Both the red (typically a fire engine or bright apple red) and blue (often royal, sometimes navy) can both be created through mixing! “Red” can be created by using yellow and magenta, and “blue” can be created using cyan and magenta. Of course, as sewists and quilters we’re not mixing fabrics to make new colors like we would with paint. So where does this leave us?

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory
I like to think of the primary colors as Yellow, Magenta, and Cyan. Since I changed my view and understanding of color to include these as primaries (and not red and blue), I really was able to have a much better understanding of color and color mixing (as in mixing colors of paint or blending with crayons, colored pencils, etc.). I practicing and playing with mixing colors then was able to transition over into my work as a sewist and quilter. I became more adept at recognizing some of the undertones that were in mixed colors that I didn’t notice before. For example, “that purple has a bit more blue in it than red.”

I understand the need to describe color in such a way to children that they can grasp the concept, but isn’t the cool thing about working with young children that they are a blank slate? It took months for my daughter to remember the difference between white and yellow. It wasn’t that she couldn’t see the difference in the color, she just couldn’t remember which name was which. If our children were taught at a young age to identify and label magenta and cyan, maybe they would have a much easier time understanding color relationships as they grew older! Cyan is also way easier to pronounce than yellow is, so let’s not start any arguments on words that are easy to remember and pronounce. Lellow.

So maybe you’re not on this crazy “magenta and cyan are the true primary colors!” bandwagon. That’s ok! There is nothing wrong with red and blue, and there is a need in art and creation for even the muddiest of colors. I am simply suggesting that an understanding of color and how to use colors to create other colors really needs to start with a good foundation. So, if you aren’t yet on board, I would like to suggest a few things to you:

  1. Go check your printer and see what the names of the ink cartridges inside are called.
  2. Do an experiment! Pick up some tiny containers of paint next time you are at a craft store. Go ahead and get magenta, cyan, and yellow. See if you can create red using magenta and yellow. See if “blue” is possible with cyan and magenta! If you want to take the test to the next level, go ahead and get red and blue too. Mix them together and send me an email telling me about the purple you were able to make! :)
  3. Think about the experience that young children would have painting if they were able to mix colors in school and walk away with bright and light colors as well as muted and desaturated!

Secondary Colors

The Polaroid Sew Along Color TheorySecondary colors are achieved by mixing two primary colors together. When we mix together yellow and cyan, we get green. When we mix magenta and cyan we get purple. Finally, when we mix magenta and yellow we get orange. When using magenta and cyan in place of red and blue, you will find that your secondary colors are bright, saturated, and lovely. Unfortunately, if you were to mix paints, you would be unable to get the purple that they often show on the color wheel by mixing together red and blue.

Tertiary ColorsThe Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Tertiary colors are achieved by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. On our color wheel, the tertiary colors fill in the space between the primary colors and the secondary colors. When we mix together yellow and green, we get yellow-green. When we mix cyan and purple, we get a beautiful cyan-purple. There are six tertiary colors that fill in those spaces between the primaries and secondaries, and countless colors in between as you experiment with different amounts of primary vs secondary to achieve the tertiary.

On to the Good Stuff

Knowing where the colors fall on the color wheel is not enough. It is important to understand the relationships between the colors, and how you can use those relationships to your advantage!

Working with Color in Sewing

When it comes to picking colors for your sewing and quilts, a good place to start is with some combinations that are known to work well together. Refer to our first post in the series if any of the following terms seem confusing. These combinations can be broken down into the following categories:

The Polaroid Sew Along Color TheoryMonochromatic – these are colors that are all the same hue, but they vary based on their tint and shade. Think of an ombre effect going from magenta to white. All of those colors from your darkest to lightest are the same hue, but are tinted to give you a different color.

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Complementary – these are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel. Magenta and green, yellow and purple, and orange and cyan are all complimentary colors.

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Analogous – these are colors that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel. An example of an analogous quilt would be one that is all yellow, yellow-orange, orange, orange-red, and red.

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Triad – these are colors that are equally spaced apart on the color wheel. For example, purple, orange, and green!

Temperature and Activity

Colors on the color wheel can also be broken into two categories, warm and cool. This is also an area where there is a quick answer and a “let’s extend our understanding and go more in-depth” answer. The quick answer is as follows:

Warm Colors: Yellows, oranges, reds, and magentas. Browns are usually included in the warm color category.

Cool Colors: Violets, Blues, Cyans, Greens. Many grays are included in the cool category.

If you take a minute to think about the list you just read, and visualize those colors on the color wheel, you may start to see the issue. All colors in their category are not created equal in temperature! What about those tertiary colors, and the range of colors that fall between our tertiary and secondary colors? I may be looking at what I perceive to be a nice cool purple all on its own, but suddenly when I stick it next to a lovely warm magenta, the purple suddenly appears to be a bit warmer! That is because in each primary color category, you can pull out two secondary colors. One of those secondary colors is warm, and one is cool. How warm or cool depends on how close it is to the tertiary, but also what color you are pairing it with!

Just as color’s temperature can appear to change when we move it next to another color, its activity level can change as well. I know, I know. Puuuuuh-lease. Active colors? Yes, I swear to you, this is a thing.

Active colors: Colors that appear to advance or pop when paired with inactive hues. Warm colors will pop/advance when they are paired with inactive hues.

Inactive Colors: Colors that appear to receded or blend when paired with active hues. Cool colors will fade/recede when they are paired with inactive hues.

Think of it this way. If you had a quilt that was primarily blue, and I asked you to choose a color that would really POP against that blue, would you choose green or purple?

Now I am COMPLETELY Overwhelmed and Don’t Think That I Will Ever be Able to Make a Color Decision Again.

I know that all of this information can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t feel as though you have a natural inclination toward color and color relationships. Guess what? I have good news. Fabric designers have a lot of color experience and are very familiar with color theory. You have probably noticed that many fabric lines only have a handful of repeating colors in the line. This isn’t a mistake! Many designers chose a specific color palette to work with, and all of the fabrics in that line use some variation of that color throughout. Lets take this lovely example of Eastham by Denyse Schmidt. Don’t the fabrics look absolutely spectacular together?

The Polaroid Sew Along Color Theory

Eastham by Denyse Schmidt

Denyse is one of my absolute favorite fabric designers, and I know that whenever I purchase one of her fabric lines, I’m going to get gorgeous surface design paired with perfect color. Denyse did an amazing job of color selection on these fabrics. Can you take a look and tell me what relationship they have to one another? Here is another picture that may help you answer my question.

The colors in Eastham by Denise Schmidt create a triad on the color wheel.

The colors in Eastham by Denise Schmidt create a triad on the color wheel.

If you said that Eastham creates a triad on the color wheel, you are correct! I cannot speculate as to how Denise chose her colors, but I can guarantee that Denyse understands the relationship between the colors on the wheel and that knowledge and understanding influences her color choices in her work.

If you feel as though you are too overwhelmed to chose colors on your own, then don’t! Find a fabric collection that you love, and look at the colors of the fabrics in that line. Many fabric stores offer bundles of specific colorways from the line. Using Eastham as an example, you would be able to purchase just the purples, or just the greens. When buying yardage, you may choose to make a monochromatic quilt from a specific colorway in one fabric line, or maybe even through in a “pop” of color. Looking at the image above, it would be a fun and exciting quilt to use only the purples and blacks/grays, and then through in that yellow or some of the yellow/green prints for a pop!

Not only do fabric stores usually carry an entire line by a specific designer, but some fabric stores even have “blogger bundles” available. These are usually fat quarter or half yard bundles of 9-12 fabrics that have been currated by popular bloggers. These bundles are inspiring to say the least, typically have a very strong color relationship going on, and can be the starting point to a really incredible project!

The Polaroid Sew-Along and other Sew-Alongs

This post is meant to work along side my other Sew-Along posts. If you are here as a part of The Polaroid Sew-Along, these posts are being released in conjunction with The Polaroid Sew-Along posts. The next post is going to detail how to use the information from this point to select background colors for your optional drop-shadow and sashing. You will be able to find a link to that post HERE once it has been published.

Happy Sewing!

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