Traditional use of colors allows each one to remain visible through the use of contrast. Pairing black or white with any other color achieves this. Eliminating contrast and pairing equal or similar color values creates a different type of visual activity called interaction. Solid color quilts are a great example of this visual phenomenon.
Through interaction, colors relate to or complement one another. Rather than combining a dark color with a light color, the use of light with light, dark with dark, or bright with bright provides a palette for interaction to take place.
“Orange Peel” • 84″ × 84″ • cotton • Pennsylvania
While solid colors allow greater amounts of color interaction, tiny prints, such as those in this quilt, can work equally well. Equal values of complementary colors produce a visual effect called vibration. The eye has a difficult time focusing on where the two colors touch. Here, the phenomenon occurs even when the complements are not exactly accurate. The red is closely related to orange (the exact complement) and is of equal value to the blue, creating the vibration.
Colors that dominate a composition are those that remain constant in your vision. They are usually the most intense or brightest, and are often warm colors. The brightest of these is yellow, followed by related colors—yellow-green on one side of the color wheel, and yellow-orange through red-violet on the other. For an example of the power of these colors, observe those used to capture our attention along roads and on emergency vehicles. Yellow-green is now the color of fire trucks and road signs because it has proven to be the most quickly recognized—even more so than red or the traditional school bus yellow.
LEFT:“Feathered Diamond” (Saw Tooth Diamond) • 76″ × 76″ • cotton • Lancaster, Pennsylvania • circa 1885
In this quilt the two related colors (neighbors on the color wheel) are of equal value and create a visual challenge. Their positions interchange as the eye travels throughout the quilt.
RIGHT: “Feathered Diamond” (Saw Tooth Diamond) • 78″ × 78″ • cotton • Lancaster County, Pennsylvania • circa 1890
Complementary colors (opposite one another on the color wheel) have the same ability to interact when their intensities are equal or close.
Pure hues, colors that have not been reduced by adding white, black, or their complement, have the strongest ability to produce interaction. When we look back to rock era posters from the 1960s and 70s, op art, and pop art, we see these kinds of color at their best. They were also evident in the chemically hand-dyed fabrics later made by quiltmakers, and are still going strong today. Pure colors provide a foolproof way of creating interaction.
“Baskets” • 66″ × 82″ • cotton • Pennsylvania • circa 1920
So often we see baskets set with white in the alternate block. When set with a more intense color, as in the blue of this quilt, the alternate block gains equal importance, creating a fluctuation between positive and negative. The blue is the same throughout the quilt, but it takes on a different appearance when its quantity is reduced and its appearance is influenced by the yellow in the pieced basket blocks.
Antique Quilt Examples
Many antique quilts are wonderful examples of color interaction, especially the nineteenth-century Pennsylvania Dutch (German), Amish, and Mennonite quilts. It is interesting to note that many prominent fine artists who emerged in the mid-twentieth century share a common ethnicity. Perhaps a deep folk culture that traditionally expressed itself with exuberant color is responsible?
It was not until the early 1930s that purely abstract compositions were created, followed a decade later by abstract expressionism. At this time, the recognized art world became aware of this type of color activity. Color came into its own and no longer functioned as a secondary element to decorate or describe form.
“Houses” • 72″ × 86″ • cotton • Pennsylvania • 1910
In this quilt there are two different dye lots of the green and orange fabrics. The darker green is used with the brighter orange to keep the interaction present. The lighter green is combined with the lighter orange to keep the values or intensities consistently balanced.
Quiltmaking has a long history of using abstract, non-representational shapes, and quiltmakers have always used color as a primary focus of their work. If there is the absence of recognizable imagery in appliqué or patchwork quilts, color can be the primary focus. When colors are chosen based upon how each functions within the design, rather than describing or decorating a recognizable object, color freedom reigns.
Plastic color changes
Once colors are recognized for themselves, they can shift in our vision and no longer remain static. This creates a visual experience that allows colors to change and assume both positive and negative visual roles within a composition—a phenomenon called “plastic.” The two-color quilts you see in this article are some that eliminate contrast (black and white relationships) and reveal this type of plastic activity generated by equal or similar color intensities.
It was not unusual for Paul Pilgrim to bring to our collecting the same interests we had in our own creative work. Color was always the guiding force. While two-color quilts were always of interest, we chose to collect those that went beyond the traditional and satisfied our particular interests.
Collector and certified quilt appraiser Gerald E. Roy is also a quilter, painter, and antique dealer.
Did you enjoy these solid color quilts?
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