Color is a Chameleon

Color is never what it appears to be. Not even true hues will ever be completely honest. A color’s “true color” is always affected by what surrounds it — much like the chameleon.

This week I’d like to talk a little bit more about color.  A couple of blogs ago, we talked about the 3-in-1 Color Tool and color families.  This week I want to explore this little scenario….

You’re at the fabric/quilt store.  You’re desperately attempting to find a green blender fabric which will work with your focus fabric.  You’ve walked the aisles, pulled out bolts, sifted through fat quarters when suddenly a light beams down from the heavens and a halo appears over a bolt of green fabric.  Then a voice from above booms through the store’s PA system – “This is the chosen one, my child.  This one is it…”

Okay, so that doesn’t exactly happen.  But we all know what it’s like to comb through yards and yards of fabric and then suddenly find the exact shade of whatever color we’ve been searching for.  It’s a feeling of relief, and happiness, and exuberant joy.  We grab the bolt, march to the cutting counter, and although we may only need one yard, we buy two because we have no idea when this serendipitous occasion will happen to us again. 

Only to get it home and find it’s not what it appears to be.  Even though we took fabric swatches with us to the store to make sure the purchased fabric would work, suddenly in the comfort of our quilt room, we find that particular fabric is still a tone, shade, or hue off. 

What happened?

To answer this questions, we first must define what color is and how our eyes and brain translate it.  So, allow this former science teacher to give you a little color science lesson.  Quilters tend to use the word “color” to include tints, hues, shades, and tones. In the in strictly scientific terms, that’s not what it is.  We tend to approach color from the quilter’s worldview.  But to understand how our brains and eyes interpret it, we need to learn what it is from a scientific worldview.  Strictly speaking, color is the characteristic of visual perception as described through color categories (red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple).  Color stimulates the photoreceptor cells in our eyes – which are the cones (a term you may remember from high school biology) and electromagnetic radiation (found only in humans).  Color categories and physical specifications of color are associated with objects through the wavelengths of the light which is reflected from them and their intensities. This reflection is governed by the object’s physical properties such as light absorptionemission spectra, etc.

[Quick aside here….right before I stopped teaching high school chemistry and physics, I learned that scientists were re-thinking the “fact” color travels via wavelengths.  They were hypothesizing it may actually travel in particles.  I have not kept up with whether or not this was pursued or is still under research.]

Each color wave has its own unique space, which can actually be defined by coordinates – kind of like a color latitude and longitude.  With humans, these coordinates are RGB, which coordinates with the three cones in our eyes which decern color waves.  Humans have trichromacy, which means we can basically really see three color wave lengths – short, medium, and long.  And while this may sound evolutionary superior, allow me to introduce this little critter:

This is the Mantis Shrimp.  It’s a stomatopod.  Stomatopods can see up to 12 wave lengths.

I realize this seems sort of complicated for a blog which is primarily for quilters who may care less about color waves and more about making sure the fabric they purchase is suitable for the quilt they’re making.  Hang with me here…I’m about to get to that point.  If you re-read the explanation of color, you discover objects are pretty much emitting color waves in different lengths which the cones in your eyes pick up and then tell your brain what color you’re looking at.  But understand the environment this object is in can play with the wavelength, especially light absorption and emission spectra.  To make a long science lesson short, the lighting in the store can play with the color wavelengths, therefore your eyes and brain may interpret it wrong.  What you thought may be the perfect, long-sought-after color fabric may actually have its color waves skewed by something like florescent lighting.  Florescent rays emit CFLs, which are specifically designed to visible region of the spectrum – in other words, they’re designed to help folks see better.  But in the process these 400-700 nm rays can alter the color waves.  However, natural lighting (such as the light which comes in through the window of the quilt store) has little interference, as does the LED lighting because they are “clear” light sources.  So, before you purchase that “perfect” fabric, you may want to carry the bolt to the door or window and look at it again to make sure it really does match up. 

Once you’ve looked at your fabric in natural light and have decided it is the perfect shade you need, there still is one more color hurdle to deal with – the other fabric.  Remember everything emits color waves.  The waves don’t always play nice or true together.  For instance, look at both of the blocks below.

This block appears to have a dark gray square in a light gray square.

This block has a light gray square in a dark gray square.

Let me ask you this:  Which of the two smaller squares in these blocks is the lightest?  Which is the darkest?

If you guessed both of the small squares are the same color, then you’re right.  Let’s try another one.

This block has a center square which appears to be a deep, dark red.

And this block’s center square appears to be a vibrant, glowing red. 

Two different reds, right?  Nope.  They’re the same color red.  So, what makes them appear to be different colors?  It all has to do with how you view the block.  When we look at the quilt blocks, we tend to look at the entire block and not just the small, center square.  It’s our perception – seeing all the color waves at one time – which makes us think it’s an optical illusion.  This illusion of colors appearing to change in juxtaposition with each other is called simultaneous contrast.

Simultaneous contrast was coined by a French chemist, Michel Eugene Chevreul.  He studied natural dyes and experimented with how colors interact together and eventually published The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors.  How does this figure into our quilting world?  I wouldn’t go through the trouble of reading it (it is long and slightly boring) but between this and a later work by Josef Albers, we quilters can understand how one color can look like two – which means if a fabric is carefully and strategically placed in a quilt, it could possibly do the work of two fabrics.  This knowledge helps us get the biggest bang out of our colors.  However, the flip side of this means we also have the ability to make two colors of fabric look like they’re identical.  It all has to do with some basic rules and understanding how colors play with each other and with our color perception.

The first rule we need to understand is Contrast of Value.  This has to do with light and dark contrasts.  Remember in my blog on color when we discussed hues, tints, tones, and shades?  This rule works with those.    Let’s look at a gray-scale first:

The long, skinny rectangle that spans all the grays is one solid color.  However, as it travels across all the grays, we perceive it as being a light, medium, or dark, depending on how it contrasts with the background it’s on. 

So, how does this figure in with our quilting fabric?  We obviously don’t quilt with only gray fabrics.  Let’s take a lime-green rectangle and lay it across a blue background make of its tints, tones, hue, and shades:

The color appears lighter on a dark background and darker on a lighter background.    

Where does this fit into quilting?  Let’s say you’re making a quilt such as this:

A Bargello

Or this:

A French Braid

There is one color in each quilt which we call a “constant.”  The other colors will change, but one will not.  It’s the stable influence.  It’s the “constant.”  The fabric for the constant is the same throughout the quilt.  But because the material which surrounds it changes, this can make the constant appear lighter or darker, depending on the fabric placement.  For me, this adds to the quilt’s appeal.  But if you’re just this side of OCD, it may drive you nuts.  Just realize there’s nothing you can do about it and accept it as one of the happy accidents in life.

The second rule we need to be aware of is Contrast of Complements.  First, let’s review what complementary colors are – they’re the colors directly across from each other on the color wheel. 

Contrasting complementary colors are based on their high intensity relationship, meaning the colors are nearly off-the-scale strong when placed next to each other.  Let’s look at the complementary colors red and green for this illustration.

The green in the center of the red square appears much more intense than the green in the center of the gray square.  This is because of the red/green complementary relationship.  How does this translate into quilts?  If you had a gorgeous green fabric you really wanted to show off in a quilt, you wouldn’t put it next to a neutral:

You wouldn’t want it next to another cool color, either.

You’d want it with a red – green’s complementary color.  The red fabric will show off that green to its fullest ability. 

One other word of caution here:  Very strong colors can push neutrals to appear more like their complements.  So, if you were making a quilt like the one above with red, green, and white, be aware that the white fabric may appear pinkish, even though it’s not.  You may want to keep this fact in mind if you’re constructing Christmas quilts using red and white fabrics – the red can push the white to appear as a light pink – definitely not a traditional Christmas color.  You have to be strategically careful with fabric placement in such a quilt. 

Complementary colors are the strongest color combination around.  Not only do they make striking quilts – as the colors appear vibrant, almost glowing – but they also create the appearance of colors which aren’t even there.  A real, quality, optical illusion. 

The third rule is Contrast of Subtraction.  This is best defined by illustration.  Let’s take this blue-violet square:

And put it in a blue background:

And then in a violet background:

The square appears more violet on the blue background and bluer on the violet background.  The blue fabric seems to take away the blue pigment in the square and the violet fabric appears to remove the purple.  This is what is meant by the Contrast of Subtraction.  Remember in my first color blog I mentioned some colors could either be “warm” or “cool” depending on how they were placed in juxtaposition to other colors – these colors are purple, lime green, white, or gray.  Place them near warm colors and they “warm up.”  Put them next to a cool color, and they automatically “cool down.”  This is also the Contrast of Subtraction. 

This rule can be especially helpful when you’re working with true hues or fully saturated colors.  These are true hues with no white, gray, or black added.  If you want those colors to really pop, you want to use black as your neutral.  Look at this quilt:

Now compare the same fully saturated colors with a white background:

And a gray background:

Those true hues look so much brighter on the black fabric.  And if it’s Amish black, they look even better.

Hopefully, this additional information about color will help you not only understand color schemes a little better, but will also explain how fabric can look so different under various lights and when it’s placed next to another fabric.  Once you’ve found the perfect fabric in the exact shade you’ve been searching for, it’s important to know how other material can affect its appearance. 

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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