Yes, folks, as promised, here’s a fun little color theory crash course, cleverly disguised as a book review of sorts. What book, you ask? Why, it’s “Color”, by Betty Edwards (the acclaimed author of “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”). Okay, this seems like a pretty generic title for such a massive subject, so it’s subtitled “A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors”. Yes. That’s so much better.
To back up for just a minute, last month, I started hand-dyeing and painting yarns for the first time, which I started writing about in this recent post (lots more to come on that in future posts). And a funny thing happened almost immediately: I realized how little I actually know about color! Sure, I’ve been producing a line of color-sequencing yarns* based on my own color concepts for over 10 years, and focusing on color-palette creation more recently, but when it came to actually mixing dyes in an attempt to create unique colors, it took me maybe 5 minutes to figure out that I needed more information. That’s when I found this book.
“Color” is written primarily for artists, yes, so most of the exercises are relative to painting. However, there is so much information about color itself that I found the book not only incredibly helpful in terms of basic color theory, but that it also greatly increases my awareness of, and appreciation for, the use of color in actual artwork. But for purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the color theory. I hope you’ll find it as beneficial as I have!
I did promise this would be a crash course, not a treatise, so I’ll make this as brief as possible, starting with a classic color wheel:
You’re most likely already familiar with the color concepts presented on the wheel: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colors. Personally, I thought I had a handle on this, but some specific details gave me new insights. For example, I was aware that each secondary color (green, orange, violet) is a combination of 2 of the 3 primary colors (red, blue, yellow), but I didn’t know that the tertiary colors (the hyphenated ones) are each a combination of a primary and a secondary color. And for dye-mixing purposes, believe me, this is quite a revelation, as you’ll see.
Tip: When I was just looking around for a good color wheel image, I was startled (and somewhat confused) by the enormous range of wheel styles. My advice is to stick with the basic 12-color wheel; it’s really all you need.
Now that we’ve absorbed the color wheel concepts, let’s move on to the 3 main attributes of a given color: hue, value, and intensity.
Just for fun, let’s use Pantone’s 2014 Color of the Year, Radiant Orchid, as our example:
- Hue refers to the color family your color belongs to; to determine this, find the color on the wheel that you think is closest to Radiant Orchid. I’m thinking Red-Violet.
- Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color: white is at one end of this scale, black at the other. Radiant Orchid looks like it’s slightly on the medium-dark side.
- Intensity (also known as saturation or brightness) refers to a scale that goes from bright to dull. A fluorescent color, for example, would definitely be at the bright end, while a smoky shade would be closer to the dull end. Our Radiant Orchid looks like it belongs on the brighter (but not brightest) end.
Tip: If you have worked in Photoshop or another photo-editing application, you’re probably familiar with the term “desaturation”; if an image is completely desaturated, there’s no color at all— it’s greyscale. So you can think of colors on the dull end of the intensity scale as having grey added to them, replacing color. In dyeing, as with mixing paints, adding a bit of the complementary color—the one exactly opposite on the color wheel—also dulls the intensity, but without changing the original hue.
So Radiant Orchid can also be described as medium-dark, medium-bright red-violet. Ta-dah!
Okay. I realize this is still just theory. How does it apply to my dyeing projects? Well, since I’m determined to mix my own colors from primary dye colors (as opposed to using pre-mixed “fashion” colors), this is of tremendous help to me in planning which primaries to mix together. For Radiant Orchid, I’ll no doubt have to experiment to get an exact match, but I’d say that starting with red and blue, with a higher proportion of red (to make the hue red-violet), in a solution that’s not very diluted (so the value stays medium-dark), and possibly with a touch of yellow-green (red-violet’s complement) to slightly dull the intensity.
And what about dyeing your clothes? Well, assuming you’re starting with something other than a pure white garment, technically what you’ll be doing is over-dyeing, that is, adding color to an existing color, as I did with my jeans in one of my early dyeing projects on CYC. So if you’re starting with light-blue denim, which is already on the dull side of the intensity scale, you may want to dye it with a bright shade, which will take on some of the qualities of the original denim color (fiber dyes are essentially transparent); if you used, for instance, a bright shade of green dye, your results will most likely be an interesting blue-green hybrid, but your jeans will probably not be as bright as the dye color itself.
Honestly, now that I’ve learned about color hue, value, and intensity, I feel so much better prepared for my dyeing experiments; instead of just throwing colors together and waiting to see what happens, I have a solid basis with which to predict the results. This (I assume) will not only save me time (less experimenting), but also money, for the dyes and the undyed yarns I’m starting with.
I’ll leave you with this liberating thought: you don’t have to ever dye anything to apply these basic color theory principles to your wardrobe! Simply going into your closet and really looking at the colors that have collected there will give you new insights into the colors you prefer. Dark, light, bright, smoky, neutral, happy? Try to think of words that sum up your colors— then remember them when you’re shopping, dyeing, or otherwise changing your clothes.
*You can find my color-sequencing yarns in the Scraplet Skeins section of my Knittique Etsy shop. (Be sure to look at the color cards to see the entire color sequences in each skein.) And while you’re there, take a look my first hand-painted skeins, in the New! Hand-painted Yarns section.