Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why Color Might Not Be a Tutorial

In the next few days I will write pages about the gnarly little topics that caused so much angst earlier this week. I need to think about what I want to say, and may need to make some samples to say it. If there is any topic you would particularly like me to discuss, please let me know in the comments. I can't promise anything.

Anything, except one topic, apparently.

Way back in 2010, I bought these fabrics at a visit to Quilted Threads. I wrote about it on the blog at the time. One reader wrote to me. "I think the fabrics you selected are beautiful, and I can understand why you say they go together, except for one. I don't understand why you picked that raspberry color. If I cover it with my finger, the selection looks lost without it, but I would never have chosen it. Why did you do that?" (What was really weird about that comment was that I was surprised she did not say the BLUE was the oddball.)

I talked to my Mom about it. Remember she's an artist too, and has made her living as an artist and art teacher for over forty years. "That," my Mom said, "you can't teach."

Which was pretty demoralizing for me, a teacher, to hear.

One of the comments yesterday, reminded me of this story. Lynne from County Durham in the UK wrote: "I'm constantly in awe of your use of colour - I have real problems with mixing colours and have several times looked at what you are doing with a quilt, thought "Ugh that's going to look awful" and then been stunned at the final fantastic result!!!! Not sure that's something that can be put in a tutorial - but if it is I reckon you could do it !!!"

Believe me, Lynne from County Durham. I'd love to be able to teach it. I have given it a great deal of thought.

Here's another example:

Way back in 2005 I made this black quilt. It's all squares, and how I did it can be found if you look in the pages tab for "My Scrap Process." I had been collecting fabrics with black backgrounds because I thought they were interesting. I'd buy half yard cuts. You can read more about the quilt here.

Many were novelties, but not all. Some were Japanese, some were florals, some were full of fun colors (colored beetles, chopsticks, circles and dots or stripes. I collected them without much thought that I would ever use them together, and then, when I decided to make a quilt out of them, I bought more.

What I wanted was to have a quilt that was a mass of color. I wanted the viewer to see color first, dancing across the surface of the quilt. THEN I wanted the viewer to realize there were dozens of different prints. THEN I wanted the viewer to realize the quilt was patchwork. (And then I wanted their mouths to fall open in astonishment. Yeah, I'm a bad woman. I know.)

As I looked over my selection, I knew I needed some blacks that didn't have as much color or pattern as the others. If you look across the quilt, you will see the black with small white circles, the black with small white boxes, the black with white squiggles and the black with white dragonflies. I needed to break up all that color with the less busy black with small white prints, but I don't know how I knew it.

About a year or so later, I showed the quilt to a professional art quilter, and said offhandedly, "There's nothing special about this, it's just made from fabrics with black backgrounds."

"OH NO," she said, "Don't say that. This is a very sophisticated concept, and not everybody could pull this off and get it to look as beautiful as this does."

The point is not that I made a pretty black quilt, my point is that I picked the fabrics and colors and prints WITHOUT GIVING IT ANY THOUGHT AT ALL. Or at least any conscious thought. I was at a fabric store once and the saleslady said, "Can you help me? I need to find something to go with this, and none of us can come up with anything good." She handed me a piece of salmon colored fabric.

"Oh sure," I said, "gimme a few minutes. How many fabrics do you want?" She told me to pick four or five. So I wandered down the aisles, pulling bolts of fabric. It was years ago, so I have no idea what I pulled, but I'm pretty sure I picked some blue green, some blue, some soft greens, and maybe a rich dark blue. I brought the stack back to the counter. She looked up, surprised. "Omigod, those are gorgeous. I would never have come up with those. How did you do that? It didn't even take you two minutes." I shrugged. I didn't know where it came from.

I still don't. To me, it's as natural as breathing.

THAT, I can't teach you. THAT, you have or you don't.

What I CAN teach you is to start with something, a color or a fabric you want to use as inspiration, and to go from there, to look at what you HAVE and to choose colors that RELATE to it (think of the selvage dots, those will always coordinate). I can teach you to think about making a range of lights and darks, a variety of scale of prints. But look at this bird! He breaks all the rules!

I can tell you to think about where the color sits on the color wheel and to venture to either side of your chosen color for colors that will work. I can tell you about warm and cool colors. Yes, there are warm blues and cold ones. Cold yellows and warm ones. You may or may not want to vary the temperature of your colors in your selection, but you should consider that option.

I can tell you to look to nature for inspiration, but also to be aware of the proportion of the zingers. Yellow green and purple and dark green are one of my favorite garden combinations, but in a quilt, using all those in equal amounts can spell disaster. It isn't just the colors that contribute to a successful combination, it's the [visual] amount of each.  Some colors are simply bigger than others.

I can teach you how to look across the color wheel for the complement, the kicker, the diva, the one color that will shake the whole thing up and make it sing.

I can teach you to look and I can teach you to think, I can teach you how to notice and pay attention. I can encourage you to break all the rules from time to time, and see where it gets you. (Look back at the bird, above.)

The rest is up to you.

And I think I just found my way.

Again, folks, have I told you how much I love your questions?


Pat said...

I agree. You can't teach an innate talent but you made a good stab at it. :-) I read a lot of quilt blogs and there are a handful of quilters, including you, that I greatly admire. I'm not "there" but I know that making the effort and continuing to experiment will bring me closer. I don't expect to ever be a trail blazer but that doesn't prevent me from making quilts that I like and others like. Meanwhile, I'll continue to do what you are suggesting. One of the best things I've found is to use my phone camera to photograph my selections and turn them to black and white. It helps me identify the values instead of just looking at the colors.

Nancy J said...

this is wonderful reading, and I will read it all again. Colour, the one thing I REALLY struggle with, putting fabrics together. and often place them on the desk and look at them every day for a week. Your black quilt, to me it glows.

Jackie said...

Boohoo, you can't teach me colour or fabric patterns working well together. I have to agree with you and your Mom, you either have it or not, though I hope we can pick up some tricks as we go along. I have learnt quite a bit by following your blog and seeing the examples of your work and I can't thank you enough sharing your gift.

Carol- Beads and Birds said...

Interesting post. As a new quilter, I struggle with color. However, I am becoming MUCH better at it. I have sewn clothes and crafty things for years. Quilt fabric selection is not really just have to choose a larger variety of fabrics and THAT is the rub for me.
xx, Carol

Just Ducky said...

What you have is part instinct and part artist training. Probably the best suggestion is to look at nature and see how colors are combined there. The bird is a perfect example. Plus, don't be afraid to break the rules! Otherwise you have no FUN!

Preeti Harris said...

More often than not, we are afraid to try and retry. All colors will work with all other colors - just depends on how much, how little and how often. Getting to the destination takes several iterations - and that is something one cannot see in a finished product. Like the iceberg - the finish is only the tip, the audition blocks, the practice blocks and a hundred pictures of the design wall remain beneath the surface.

Barbara said...

I assume you're talking about the datk fabric. That's what Jinny Beyer calls the deep dark. Of course it doesn't have to be that dark, only noticeably darker than the other "dark" fabrics. That's my interpretation of how Jinny teaches it.

Linda Swanekamp said...

I was one of those who did not get color or could not understand how to handle it. In my 20s, I bought a Colored Pencil book by Bet Borgenson and she suggested making a color wheel with all the Prismacolor pencils (126 then). Getting all the values and hues and intensities. It took me a long while, but that opened the door for me. I still have that color wheel. By photographing fabric in greyscale, I am able to grasp the values apart from the color. I have a printed commercial grayscale, values 1 to 10, that I have used for years in drawing and painting. Painting in watercolor gets me to see the nuances and not overworking color because you only have one shot with that. So, I think I could teach color using a variety of tools to open up someone's eyes and give them a way to grasp what others have intuitively.
Thanks for standing with me on the slow learner comment.

gwenyth said...

I am as lucky as you where colour is concerned but I grew up and got old thinking everyone was the same until a year or so ago when someone asked me to teach them...I had no idea where to start, so well done for giving it a try,a successful start for is the same with sewing, I learnt as a child and had no idea others could not do the same until everyone started asking me to make them things. I offered to teach them instead, for most they just couldn't do it. We are so very lucky.