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Color Theory For Knitters

Color Theory, Tutorial -

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.
Color Theory for Knitters
The Primary and Secondary Colors
 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. 
Analogous Colors
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.

The Aegaea Pattern uses yarn that is mostly mid blue with hints of teal, navy, and purple.
Aegaea Shawl
The Bander Ridge Socks use Orange, Red and Purple
Bander Ridge Socks
Complimentary Colors
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. 
Porifera Cowl
The Porifera Cowl is worked with a yarn which is predominantly shades of Yellow and Purple
Waving Bamboo Socks
The Waving Bamboo Socks are mostly shades of orange with ice-blue highlights.
Advancing and Receding Colors
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.
Vault of Diamonds
As you can see on Vault of Diamonds Hat above the red diamonds 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.

Scarlet Arches Socks

Colors are Lightwaves
Color actually has a great deal to do with light as the eye perceives color as light waves bouncing back from an object. Interestingly when an incredible pair of Scarlet Arches Socks are worked in a deep 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
Black and White
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. 
Mesmerizing Mittens
The Mesmerizing Mittens use a zingy combination of Black and White
Shades and Tints
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. The purple for the Maude Heath Cowl has both black and white added to it, making the color less intense. 
Maude Heath Cowl

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. 
Color Intensity and Vibration
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 brights from the center of the color ring, as 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.

You can also see how the pink and teal (which are complimentary colors since they are almost red and green) on the sleeves of the larger sample Sibling Revelry Pullover are close enough in intensity to vibrate. 
Sibling Revelry Pullover

Color Dominance
Understanding intensity is important when choosing colors for a garment or accessory so you can manipulate which color is most dominant. 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 will be the dominant shade in the finished project.
Kitto Cowl
The Kitto Cowl uses an intense neon yellow and a deep coral combined with a mid grey. When you squint your eyes the yellow can be seen most clearly (it sits in the foreground) the coral is second most clear (it sits in the midground) and the grey is least clear (it recedes into the bacground). 
How to See Color Dominance 
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.

Cottina Mittens
The Cottina Fingerless Mitts use a yarn with multiple colors all at about the same intensity so no one color comes through more than the others. 
Choosing Colors that Look GREAT Together
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.
Use a Neutral
If you are totally sold on a crazy intense color, 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 Bright Peak Pullover work in neon yellow and a dark grey, the yellow is still bright but the grey is a subtle pairing. 
Above is the Tabulated Shawl which uses grey as a tone beside bright red and purple, the grey does actually tame the red and purple and if we could see them separately they would be brighter than they are in this photo.
Gilded Isles
Warm and Cool
Colors can also affect the warmth or coolness of the surrounding pigments. The green-yellow in the Gilded Isles Cowl looks warmer when placed beside the blue, and the blue looks more grey when placed beside the yellow. This 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. 
Titanias Garland
Too Many Colors = Dull Colors
Many colors together in small amounts make the intensity lessen and the eye sees more grey which recedes the color. Above is the Titania's Garland Cowl and although the individual colors in it are rather bright; green, yellow, mint, lime, violet, purple, orchid, raspberry, lilac, teal 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. 
Lindy Pop
Spacing the colors out more like using larger stripes can lessen the effect and still keep the shades intense and crisp, like the the stripes of the Lindy Pop Shawl





  • Meghan Jones

    Hi Julia,

    Adding bright red to that combination will be nice and vibrant! I would make sure to place the colors in the order you intend to knit them in and see if any of the shades vibrate when placed beside each other.

  • Julia Kent

    My blanket is bright yellow, bright blue, and grass green. I want to add bright red. Please talk about this combination.

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