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Basic Color Terminology

I love teaching dyeing and yarn painting classes because you see people bloom as much as the fiber that they are working with. The most common reason people give for taking one of my classes is that they are afraid of making the wrong color choices. To that I say, there are no wrong color choices! Sure, there are combinations that we may like more than others, but I have yet to see a wrong color on yarn.

Let’s first learn the language of color. I will stick to the color wheel method, consider the colors as the numbers on a clock.

Primary colors, red, yellow and blue, are the colors which cannot be made by mixing other colors. These colors are usually depicted as the points of a triangle that form the basis of the color wheel. They would occupy the places of 12, 4 and 8 on a clock. If you want to take up dyeing, these are the only colors of dye you really need to have. With some practice, you can mix these three colors in different concentrations to form any color. I must confess I own quite a few more colors than just the primaries.

Secondary colors are those which are comprised of equal parts of two primary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green and purple. On the color wheel they are shown at the 2,6 and 10 positions on the clock.

Tertiary colors are those that are created by mixing any two adjacent colors. The tertiary colors are red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-purple, and purple-red.

Complementary colors are those which are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, if red is at 12 o’clock, then its complementary color would be green which would be at 6 o’clock.

Analogous colors are those which are beside each other on the color wheel.

So, what does all of this mean to a fiber artist? It gives us a path to follow in selecting color. If we want high contrast, then look at a complementary color scheme. On the other hand, for a more subdued look, opt for “color neighbors“, or analogous colors.

Another characteristic of color that must be considered is the concentration of the color. One of my favorite ways to get great pastel roving is to take a quarter of the fiber from a batch and dye it to a really bold color like fuchsia or pumpkin orange, then have it blended in with the three quarters white or very light fiber. It will give the roving much more visual interest than just one flat dye color.

Color can also be a bit tricky in fiber. If you want a color to be visible in a project, it must be at least 20 percent of the whole. Otherwise it will be lost, or look like it does not belong on the finished project.

Remember, don’t be afraid to try different color combinations. If you still don’t trust yourself, do what I sometimes do, ask an eight year old!

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