Home Beth Said Sew Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not Be Intimidated by the Color Wheel

Do Not, I Repeat, Do Not Be Intimidated by the Color Wheel

by Beth Cooper
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Yesterday I overheard the color wheel described as “scary.”  I was intrigued.  Scary isn’t a word I would use to describe it.  I would probably describe the color wheel as easy or important or helpful or even awesome!  At the time that her comment was made, I was with a large group of quilters.  It was a great conversation-starter and I realized that many quilters and sewists don’t understand the color wheel.  Listen up peeps, once you understand how it works, you’re going to love it.  And use it!

So, what is the color wheel anyway?  Well, it is usually made of cardboard and is a circular shape.  Each color of the rainbow is represented on it in pie-shaped sections.  The wheel shows the relationship between primary colors, secondary colors, complementary colors, etc.  It is a valuable tool when it comes to picking colors for your next quilt project or for your next garment. 

If you don’t own a color wheel, no worries.  Here is a link to an online wheel and buy a new color wheel here!  I like to keep one hanging in my sewing room right next to fabric stash. 

When I was in my early 20s, I decided to challenge myself with a more complicated quilt pattern.  I don’t recall the name of it, but it was full of flying geese and various-sized stars.  I spent a small fortune on the fabric for that quilt.  It was all purchased from my local quilt shop and it was all from the same pastel fabric line.  It was beautiful fabric.  I worked on my piecing with that quilt for MONTHS!  My end result of that project after some intense piecing?  Basically, you couldn’t even see my piecing because the shade of the fabric was all the same.  It all looked the same.  My stars did not stand out.  My flying geese were invisible.  There was ZERO contrast.  I felt like I had wasted my time and my piecing did not even show up.  Had I learned anything?  Yep!  It was an important lesson in my quilting life.  Quilts like that need contrast.  From there on out, I considered color theory when buying fabric, not just grabbing what I was first drawn toward.  Now don’t get me wrong, you definitely should buy fabric that you’re drawn to and that makes you happy, but sometimes it’s a good idea to throw a neutral, a dark, or a complementary color into the mix.

How does the color wheel work?  It demonstrates which colors work in harmony with each other.  If you want colors that complement each other you can pick colors that are directly across from each other on the wheel, like red and green or violet and yellow.  What if you want a mono-chromatic color scheme?  The wheel teaches you about shade, tint, and tones of one color.  An analogous color scheme would be using colors that are adjacent to each other on the wheel.  A diad color scheme would be using colors that are two spaces apart from each other on the color wheel.  Example:  yellow and green.  A triad color scheme is using colors that are three spaces away from each other.  A tetrad color scheme is using colors that are four spaces away from each other.  If you’ve ever wondered how artists and designers come up with the perfect color schemes – this is it.  They use a color wheel and know a bit about color theory. 

Don’t be intimidated.  It is a very easy concept and I know without a doubt that it can help you pick the fabric for your next project, whatever that may be.  Play around with it and the idea of mixing and matching your favorite colors and your not-so-favorite colors.  Drag out a box of crayons and do a bit of coloring with some inspiration from the color wheel.  I bet you’ll be surprised how quickly it starts to make sense and how your colors stand out.  Tomorrow morning when you’re deciding what to wear for the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if some color theory popped into your head and helps you decide on an outfit because once you’re awakened to color theory, you use it with everything.  Good luck my little color fledglings!  Have fun exploring color!

‘Til next time,


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