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Color Theory -

Color Theory For Knitters

Do you ever have trouble picking colors for your knitting? Or do you find yourself picking the same colors repeatedly and need a change? The world of color theory is an extensive one that not only lives in the realm of science but of course surrounds our every day experiences.

Let's start with the absolute bare bones basics shall we? Primary colors, beloved palette of children's toy manufacturers and the beginning of the journey into color theory. The 3 primary colors from which all other colors can be created are RED, YELLOW and BLUE. From the combination of the primary colors we create the secondary colors ORANGE, GREEN, and PURPLE. Within the secondary colors are the tertiary colors which are variations of the secondary colors; RED ORANGE, YELLOW ORANGE, YELLOW GREEN, BLUE GREEN, RED PURPLE AND BLUE PURPLE. These colors are organized on a color wheel with the red yellow and blue being separated by tertiary, secondary, tertiary.

Above you can see the color wheel as it is typically displayed. 

When choosing a color scheme for a sweater try working with 2 or 3 analogous colors, colors that are beside each other on the color wheel. For example try red orange, red and red purple, or perhaps green blue, blue and blue purple. You can see this type of relationship in many hand dyed skeins as the colors are close to each other and blend together creating secondary and tertiary colors.

This skein from the Stationary Nomad uses Blue and green and several shades between.

And this skein from Indigo Dragonfly uses red purple, red, and orange red, to orange. 

Colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel are called complimentary colors, RED AND GREEN, BLUE AND ORANGE AND (my favorite) PURPLE AND YELLOW. Excellent color schemes are also based on the complimentary color combination, for example this commercially available fair isle pullover which uses a basis of blue and orange, light orange, medium orange, dark blue, medium blue and green blue with white.

When using multiple colors it is important to remember that warmer colors tend to advance towards the eye within a color scheme (seem closer to you) and are considered to be active colors. Cooler colors recede within a color scheme (seem farther away) and are considered to be passive colors. As you can see on the sweater above the orange stripes jump out of the picture at you while the blue ones fall back into the picture. If you are having difficulty seeing that movement try squinting your eyes and looking through your lashes as that can help reduce small details and improve color information.

Color actually has a great deal to do with light, the eye and how we perceive color and light waves bouncing back from an object. Interestingly when something (a luscious skein of alpaca silk perhaps) 'is' a color, let's go with red, it isn't actually red at all. We perceive the skein as red because it is reflecting only the red color back to our eyes. So in all actuality the skein is every other color except the red that we perceive

While we are talking about light let's get to Black and White, which are both colors and not colors at the same time. Essentially Black and White have more to do with light then anything else as Black absorbs all light waves and does not bounce any off it's surface for us to perceive, therefore appearing dark, and White reflects all the colors of the visible light spectrum away from the surface of the object to the eyes. 

Adding Black and White pigments to colors make shades and tints respectively. Shades darken colors and make them darker, cooler and duller. Tints lighten colors making them lighter, paler and brighter, but don't confuse brighter with more intensity, both adding black or white to a color will reduce it's intensity as a color.
Above you can see the color wheel with the outermost color being the pure color then moving from outside to inside a ring of mixed with white (tints), grey (tones) and black (shades) respectively. 

When choosing colors you can always go with shades, tones and tints of the same color. If choosing Analogous colors for a garment try choosing the most intense pure purple, the tint of blue and the shade of green, this will give your color palette a more sophisticated look. Try not to choose only colors from one ring of the tints and shades wheel, and try to only pick one or two at most from the pure color ring. Why only two you ask? When two very intense colors are placed beside each other (typically primary or complimentary colors) they tend to buzz or move in your vision, this is called color vibration. You can see an example below.. if you dare.. da da daaa

Understanding intensity is important when choosing colors for a garment as you don't necessarily want one color to overwhelm any of the other colors (or maybe you do?) . A simple way of checking this is to either squint your eyes like described before and see if any one shade really jumps out at you, if it sits much closer to your vision than any of the other ones it might be overwhelming in the motif. Try something less intense and squint again. Another simple cheat to decode intensity is using your iphone, take a fairly well lit picture of the yarn then change it to greyscale using a filter in your camera app, if the bright yarn continues to light up in the greyscale image it really is a bright choice.

Above are three Zauberballs, the two on the left use a pure color with shades and tints, the one on the right is only pure color; you can see how much more intense it is than the others. 

Above is a wall of yarn from Lion Brand, even though there are many different colors and a few are close to pure they are all close enough in tone for none to pop out, no doubt artfully arranged by a master marketeer. 

Also when choosing colors from the tints and shade wheel it is important to only move a moderate amount on the wheel any one way, if you are using many shades analogously use only a few tints, tones or shades above and below the pure color. Or if you are using many ranges of tints, tones and shades use only one or two colors on the wheel. Uncomfortable color pairings can erupt from moving too far in both directions such as an intense lime green and a light mint green, which would be the pure yellow green and a highly tinted blue green which is two steps over and many tints up from the lime green.

If you are totally sold on a crazy intense color, like all those amazing new neon yarns that have just come out remember that you don't have to have any color in your tint, tone or shade. Meaning go with white, grey or black as a combination, or use one of those as a background for several intense analogous colors.
 Above you can see the neon yellow and a dark grey, the yellow is still. really. yellow. but the grey allows it all the space it needs to sing it's crazy neon yellow song. 

Above is a woven scarf which uses grey as a tone beside bright red and pink, the grey does actually tame the red and pink and if we could see them separately they would be brighter than they are in this photo.That is because colors also change depending on what they are beside, generally speaking warm colors make cooler colors cooler and cool colors make warmer colors warmer. Midtones are affected in that warm tones make the mid tone cooler and cool tones make the midtone warmer. Many colors together make the intensity lessen and the eye sees more grey which recedes the color. Below is a skein of handspun yarn and although the individual colors in it are rather bright; green, yellow, mint, lime, ochre, russet, blue, raspberry, lilac and more, in many ways the finished product is very muted. Remember that the eye perceives all the colors being reflected as white and so at some point it begins to tint the colors you are seeing when there are so many of them together. 

So next time you go to the yarn store don't be afraid of a new color, or shade or tint, pull out your newly acquired color skill, perhaps an iphone and leave the mascara at home because you have color to explore! Remember the rules for amazing combinations:

1. Different tints and shades of the same color
2. Combinations of analogous color 
3. Complimentary color combinations
4. Sophisticate your selections by only using one or two intense pure colors combined with tints and shades. 
5. Don't move too far in any direction on the tints shades and tones wheel, the color pairings can become uncomfortable. 
6. Use white, grey and black as neutral backgrounds for highlighting intense colors
7. Too many colors of the same intensity together begin to grey out from a distance. 

Now if you do want to keep picking the same colors over and over go right ahead, my best friend picks the same colors time and time again and really is a very well adjusted loving individual. But if you want to spice it up, remember the general guidelines above and maybe I'll see you in the depths of the local LYS, cackling madly with a color wheel sometime soon!

If you are looking for supporting materials for this post I recommend, a color wheel,  Color Matters, Color Theory Overview, and this terrific book that is all about the history of color, I've read it three times and it only gets better. 


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