The Polaroid Sew-Along Guide: Color Theory Basics


This post is a part of my series on color. For more posts in this series, click here. For the next post which gives more detailed information on COLOtheory and relationships, 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.

Color Theory

Color is something that I love to chat about, and it is a huge part of my life. Colors can reflect moods, elicit emotions, and even guide decisions and actions. Advertisers and cinematographers use color to try to persuade their audience. Costume designers use color to transport us to a specific time and place. Designers use color to assign an environmental aesthetic to a space. Color theory is a huge, massive, gigantic, broad topic that is much too big in scope to address in one blog post, so over the course of the next month or so, I’m going to be creating a series of posts that talk about color. As the posts build up, I will add a “quick link” here so that you are able to quickly navigate to all of them!

Before we move on to mixing a matching colors, we need to have a basic understanding of how color is defined and the terms that are used to refer to certain concepts associated with color.


It is important to understand that color can be a very confusing topic. I believe one reason for this is due to the very nature of color itself. Humans perceive color based on how light enters receptors in the eyes. Those receptors then transit a message to the brain, which then responds. “Oh yes, red. Very good.”

So basically, color is how the human brain perceives light after it travels through a gateway of awesome in the eye. I can see how, from person to person, there can be a variation in how color is perceived. Isn’t it that way with all of our senses? I perceive sauerkraut as absolutely revolting, and I absolutely adore brussel sprouts. Something about the way my brain perceives these foods is controlled by the receptors in my mouth. Perhaps I don’t have a refined enough palette to enjoy the kraut! HA!

My point is, we all have different ways of perceiving the world around us, and that perception is greatly influenced by our exposure to these things, our awareness of them, and the practice we have distinguishing between them. I am sure that you have heard some people say, “so-and-so has a real eye for color.” While that may be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the average person sitting next to them does not. I think a lot of how we perceive color has to do with our willingness to understand it and work with it.

There are many different terms associated with color including (but not limited to) hue, chroma, value, saturation, luminance, tint, tone, and shade. Whew! I’m going to talk about a few of them below.

Pink, Blue, and Green?

As we move on, please note that while I do have a background in art, I am in no terms an expert in the field of color theory. Color is something that I love and work with frequently and successfully, so I feel that I am able to give you some basics on the subject to help you in your creative endeavors!


When you hear someone using the term “hue,” they are generally using it in conjunction with the word “color.” So when we say “pink” or “blue” or “green” we are talking about a color, but when we start use terms like “raspberry” or “Caribbean” or “celery,” we are really referring to the color’s hue. For example, I would describe the colors in the above image as “pink, blue, and green.” How would you describe their hues?

Pink, Blue, and Green?

You can have a range of colors that are different hues, and the image above is a good example of this. We still have pink, blue, and green, but we have a difference in hue between the color on top and its partner on bottom. A color is manipulated into different hues by adjusting its characteristics. Read on for more!


Value is an important aspect to know, especially in quilting. Value is defined as how “light” or “dark” the color is. In other words, how close or far away it is from white. In the example below, you can see that we have a blue hue in a range of values.

Blue in a range of values

When creating a quilt, a fabric’s value is just as important as its hue. Quilts that are all the same value have a tendency to feel flat, and do not have the same visual interest as quilts that have a range of values.

When quilters refer to “low-volume” fabrics, they are talking about fabrics that are close to white in value. These fabrics have a tendency to be very subtle and gentle. You may be thinking, “but you just said that quilts that are all the same value have a tendency to feel flat! Why would someone want to create a quilt that uses fabrics that are all close to white?”

Good question!!

Low Volume Color Combination

Low Volume Color Combination

Between each value, there is an entire range of color. Let me give you an example in numbers. Between the number (1) and (2), we can break those numbers down into fractions of the number, right? So between (1) and (2) we have 1.25, 1.5, and 1.75. Between all of those numbers, there are even more numbers! You can break it down into thirds, eighths, sixteenths, etc. etc. The same is true with color. Between two values in the same color, there is an entire range of color! Our eyes may not be capable of perceiving all of the variation, but it is there! So when you are working with a quilt that is low volume, you are working with a number of fabrics that are a variety of values closer to the “white” end of the value scale. There is still variation in the value of the quilt, but instead of working with a large range of value, the quilter may be focusing on values that are, at their darkest, about midway to mid-value.

Tints, Tones, and Shades

I think that these terms are usually used interchangeably, and although they are not the same thing, their definitions are very close. Unless you are regularly mixing or manipulating colors, just a basic definitions of the terms will be enough!

Tint (+white), Tone (+gray), and Shade (+black)

Tint (+white), Tone (+gray), and Shade (+black)

Tint: A hue with white added to it.

Tone: A hue with grey added to it.

Shade: A hue with black added to it.

In the example above, you can see how manipulating color by tinting, toning, or shading it can also change its value and hue!

Pairing and Mixing Colors

In my next post I am going to discuss some of the theory and science behind pairing colors together in your work. I will also be creating a post devoted to value, and how making conscious decisions about values in your quilts can really take your designs to the next level! In the meantime, take the opportunity to experiment with color. Take a color, and add white, gray, or black. See how much you can manipulate the color by adding white, gray, or black in varying amounts. Also take some time to check out some of these great color sites on the web!

Pinterest: try searching “color palettes,” “color boards,” or “color inspiration”

Design Seeds: This site is absolutely full of inspiring color boards!

EW Couture Collection: This site has amazing color boards posted in their Inspiration Board Monday series

Fabric Shops Online: One of my favorite things to do during downtime is to go onto some of my favorite fabric sites and look at their blogger bundles. Super inspiring for fabric selection!


Happy Sewing!