Color Theory in Fabric

Colorful fabric squares

Lea McComas is a master quilter and artist. She experiments with many different aspects of quilt art, but lately has been focusing on color and color theory. Lea is very interested in how colors interact with each other, and has devised a series of experiments and examples to illustrate her discoveries. Read on for an exploration of color strength, or grab the latest issue of Quilting Arts Magazine for even more colorful discoveries!

Goethe’s color theory scale

Goethe’s color theory scale

Colors vary in their strength, or power.

Like children interacting on a playground, some are more dominant and others more passive. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—a German author, statesman, scientist, and artist living in the 18th and 19th centuries—understood this and developed his own color theory. He assigned numbers to pure colors based on their brightness.

Example 1 showing an equal number of yellow and violet squares

Example 1 showing an equal number of yellow and violet squares | Photos by Hornick Rivlin Studio

Yellow is the brightest with a 9, and violet is the darkest with a 3. These numbers can also indicate the relative strength of any color. This is useful information for fiber artists. When using multiple colors in a quilt, one color may seem to dominate, even though all colors are used in equal amounts. This is due to the relative strength of that color. The direct complements of yellow (9) and violet (3) produce the most dramatic example of this. In Example 1, there are an equal number of yellow and violet squares, but, clearly, yellow dominates.

Example 2 showing orange dominance

Example 2 showing orange dominance

In Example 2, the triad of orange (8), green (6), and violet (3)—where each color is represented equally—the orange dominates, even though it accounts for only a third of the squares. Why? Because orange has a higher number on the brightness scale.

“Simple Pleasures” • 30" x 51" In this quilt, the vibrant yellows and oranges are counterbalanced by adequate amounts of violet and green.

“Simple Pleasures” • 30″ x 51″ In this quilt, the vibrant yellows and oranges are counterbalanced by adequate amounts of violet and green.

Find the balance

What better way to explore the balance of colors than to apply it to one of your own pieces of artwork.
You can use Goethe’s scale to find balance within a composition by doing the following:

  1. List the colors you are using in order from strongest to weakest.
  2. Place the corresponding numbers under the color names.
  3. Working from the outsides to the center, swap the numbers as follows:
    • The strongest and weakest colors trade numbers
    • The second strongest and second weakest colors trade numbers
    • If you are using an odd number of colors, the color in the center keeps its number
  4. These new number assignments indicate how many parts of each color need to be used in your composition in order to achieve a harmony between the colors.

Color wheel for color theory

Glossary of color terms

Here is a quick overview of several color terms and how they are used.
Luminosity—The perception of the brightness of a given color
Complementary—2 colors directly across from each other on the color wheel
Triadic—3 colors in a triangular form on a color wheel
Double Split Complementary—2 pairs of complementary colors forming an “x” on the color wheel (such as yellow, violet, red, and green) sometimes with an additional color added in

Example 3 showing three times as much violet to yellow

Example 3 showing three times as much violet to yellow

Balance a complementary color scheme

Let’s return to the complements—yellow and violet—to put this into practice. In Figure 3, yellow (9) + violet (3) switch position to become yellow (3) + violet (9). When possible, reduce the numbers, but maintain the ratio, i.e., 3:9 can be reduced to 1:3. This ration of 1:3 means that every time yellow appears in a composition, 3 times as much violet is needed to tame it and create harmony.

Lea McComas is an acclaimed fiber artist, teacher, author, and founder of the Border Wall Project. Her work has been exhibited around the world and featured in numerous publications. Lea shares the knowledge and techniques behind her award-winning pictorial quilts in her lectures, workshops, online classes, and her book, Thread Painted Portraits. Visit her website to learn more about Lea.

Want to learn even more about Lea’s color studies? Check out “Quilting Arts TV” Series 2300 for more great information from Lea, as well as other amazing quilt artists! In addition to color, Lea loves to teach many quilting topics. Peruse her courses on thread painting and fused raw edge appliqué portraits.

Sew long,

Explore color theory and more!

Leave a Reply