Choosing Quilt Colors - The Quilt Color Wheel

By Sherri McConnell

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Color is one of the most important aspects of quilt design. While there are infinite variations possible, it's important that quilters think about how to effectively use the right colors to create visual appeal within their quilts. While sometimes colors work well together - bringing balance and contrast to the quilt design; other times they don't, resulting in a project that's not quite as beautiful as desired.

A helpful tool for determining which colors to incorporate in quilts is the color wheel. By showing the relationships between colors, this tool aids quilters in seeing how colors play off of and complement one another. Understanding a color wheel ensures quilters will select the right hues to make their quilts a masterpiece!

color wheel for quilts

Be sure to check out the Craftsy quilting class: Color Play for Quilters

The order of the colors on the color wheel is identical to the order of colors in the spectrum of light. As such, the color wheel contains the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. These three colors are pure colors and are found equidistant from each other. The secondary colors: orange, green, and violet, are found between the primary colors. The tertiary colors are combinations of the primary colors and the secondary colors found adjacent to them; for example: yellow-green is a mix of equal parts of yellow and green.

While the color wheel displays pure colors, many of the colors quilters use are slightly altered versions. For example, adding black to any of the colors will deepen its value thus creating a new shade, while the addition of white will lighten its value creating a tint. Beyond that, additional tones can be created by adding gray to colors, making them less intense.

Luckily many commercial color wheels have symmetrical markings which can help provide color suggestions that will create balance in quilt design. The best way to utilize one of these color wheels is to begin with a color in mind. By placing one of the symmetrical markings on a chosen color, the placement of the other markings can help the quilter to see which colors will provide harmony or contrast depending on the look they are trying to create.

Even without that specific tool, there are a couple of general principles quilters can use based on the color wheel. One approach quilters can take is to quilt with complementary colors. These are the colors opposite from each other on the color wheel; for example, yellow and purple. When taking this approach it's best to allow one of the colors to be more dominant and used frequently, while the other is gently dispersed throughout.

Quilters can even make analogous quilts using colors that lie immediately next to each other on the color wheel. Because their roots are similar, these colors tend to go well together. Begin with the two colors selected, and then continue to expand to the adjacent colors, peppering them into the quilt for a bit of extra flare.

color wheel of quilt fabrics

Another aspect of color to consider is the distinction between warm and cold values. Using these different values in the right combination can result in a beautiful quilt. Shades of reds and oranges are described as warm colors and appear towards the right of the color wheel, while cool colors are blues and greens. Warm colors tend to be more dominant in quilt design. In addition dark and light colors effect dominance as well; darker colors tend to be more dominant but can be nicely offset with warm colors.

Just because there are a lot of color choices, doesn't mean quilters should shy away from monochromatic, or one color, quilts either. These quilts are still visually appealing because quilters can incorporate any variation of a number of shades and tones.

The principles that can be learned from the color wheel are evidenced in many of the modern quilts being made today; for example, creating "low-value" quilts has recently become a popular trend among modern quilters. Using a color wheel while choosing fabrics for a new quilt can be an interesting and educational process. Have you ever used a color wheel when designing a quilt?

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