Color Wheel Clarity: Understanding the Basics of Color

Have you ever loved a multicolored skein of yarn but found that once it was knitted up, the colors reacted badly with each other? Or have you ever been adventurous with a pattern and changed the colors of the called-for yarn but then never wore the sweater because you didn’t like your choice? Color is a powerful force—it and can provoke emotions from calming comfort to discord and strife. Color can make or break a project, and I’m going to work with you to help make it!


Understanding Color

The subject of color has always seemed so, well, subjective. What color appeals to me in my décor and textiles can’t always be easily explained. I find this particularly difficult when applying the subject of color to someone else’s textile arts. Am I to tell someone what color to prefer with her fabrics, yarn, dyes, and apparel? Every time I have made an assumption about a color—that it is too loud, too dated, too pale, too anything—that color has proved itself to be someone else’s favorite, or even the Pantone color for the next year. I can’t win when giving personal advice on color.

But personal subjectivity aside, there is much crafters and artists can learn about color. Moreover, we can train ourselves in color and improve our visual perception of color and color relationships. When you plan to knit beautiful yarns, or dye your own colorway, or select a great roving (and picture the end-product yarn), you want it to be the best it can be, both for your own pleasure and that of the recipient. With knowledge of color, you can feel confident in your investment of yarn and time.

Color Basics

Understanding proper color choices starts with a review of simple color theory. Hopefully, you have had an art class at some point, and this information will be a refresher of your color wheel knowledge. I somehow escaped art classes through public schools and learned my color theory first through quilting; I have since applied it to knitting and other textile arts.

The three primary colors—red, blue, and yellow—combine to create the secondary colors, orange, green, and violet. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/asiandelight

There are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. They are called primary because no other color creates them. Mix two of these primary colors, and you have the three secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple). The color wheel, a common technique of arranging colors (first developed by Isaac Newton), is created by placing these colors in a circle, with the secondary colors filling the gaps between the primary colors. Tertiary colors are a combination of one primary color and a secondary color neighbor. Tertiary colors are violet-blue, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, and violet-red.

The color wheel. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/NNehring

When picking multiple colors for a project, understanding their relationship on the color wheel can be a great aid. Complementary colors are colors across from each other on the color wheel. They have high contrast. This relationship can be used when picking two colors for a high-contrast sweater pattern. Analogous colors are neighbors on the wheel. They are pleasing together but more subtle. Knitting a “dip-dyed” project that quietly moves from one shade to the next is an example using analogous color inspiration. Choose a triad of colors equidistant from each other on the color wheel for a three-toned, colorful, dynamic knit. The Sámi mittens I study and write about are knitted most often in the primary color triad of blue, red, and yellow. If the pure, saturated versions of these hues are too dynamic for your use, you can tone them down by placing them against a neutral color or choosing the hues in differing values.

The Tucson Pullover from Interweave Knits Summer 2018 uses complementary and analogous colors on a neutral base to create its striking patterns.

Advanced Color Concepts

The value of a color refers to the amount of white or black that was combined with a saturated color to create a hue. Black mixed with a color, such as red, creates another version, or shade, of red. We might label this color cranberry, mauve, or dark red, but they are all in the red family. White mixed with a color such as red creates another version, or tint, of red. Depending on the amount of white, this could produce blush, baby pink, or deep rose.

Pure red mixed with increasing amounts of white (left) and increasing amounts of black to create tints and shades, respectively. Photos by George Boe, from Spin Off Summer 2018

Finally, when both black and white (gray) are added to a color, this is called a tone. Think of dusty pinks, mustard yellows, or avocado green. When you work on a project with colors from one color family but in differing values, that is a monochromatic color palette. Kettle-dyed yarn is a good example of this: a colored yarn with differing intensities of the same shade (such as the Danse Macabre Poncho by Karin Wilmoth). The resulting knitted fabric has a different visual texture compared to one knitted with a solid-colored yarn.

Choosing Colors for Knitting

When choosing multiple colors for a project, I often start with one color. Most often it is the dominant color for my project, but it doesn’t have to be. It may be just a color or yarn that I love and want to use as an accent. Next, I choose colors of a similar family (tone, shade, or tint). When I designed my last Fair Isle project, I knew I wanted to combine greens and purples (magenta and yellow-green are complementary colors on the color wheel). I hemmed and hawed over what color would travel through the center of the motifs and pop. I auditioned several hues but always came back to a red that was of a similar intensity as the other colors. Because all the yarns were overdyed on natural gray, the accent color became a dusty pink. Used in a large proportion, the pink would have been overwhelming. But as a small accent, it really did its job of adding that pop.

The greens, yellows, and pinks in the Manitou Set complement each other beautifully. Photo by Harper Point Photography

Finally, how you implement these ideas of color depends on your objective. Perhaps you think you will ignore color theory and make a vivid/tonal/monochromatic knit. But you won’t be truly ignoring color theory—you will be bending it to achieve your own result. Good luck, and good creating!


Recommended reading:
Levin, Susan. Color Sense: Creative Color Combination for Crafters. New York: Sixth & Spring Books, 2008.


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