Color Chat: Color in Context 74

Color in Context - A color tutorial @ play crafts

I decided to write this post because a colleague posted a picture of a VW beetle on his Facebook page, and asked “Is this blue-ish or green-ish?” The answer of course was, both. However, he posted the picture next to a powder blue beetle, so the one in question looked green-ish. I didn’t think Facebook was the right place to go into color context, so instead it’s going here!

We very rarely see colors on their own, they are almost always next to other colors. We see them in context, and that context can have a large effect on how we perceive the colors. Knowing how colors appear to change based on their context can be a very powerful design tool when creating your projects.


There are optical illusions that use context to play with the way your brain perceives the colors. For instance, the square marked A and the square marked B in the image above are actually the exact same shade of grey. However, the context you are seeing them in is different. Square A is next to lighter squares, so your brain perceives it as a darker shade, and square B is next to darker squares, so your brain perceives it as a lighter shade. (You can test this in photoshop or any photo editing tool with an eyedropper. They really are the same color.)

Specifically, our brains are really good at picking out the differences in colors that are next to each other. What might look like two of the same yellows when viewed apart, will suddenly take on differences when held next to each other. Everything with color works like this, including fabrics. I pulled a couple examples from my stash, but really you can do this with almost any fabric that reads as a single color.



Similar to the VW beetle my colleague posted, we have this Joel Dewberry Dogwood print in Sunglow. This color lies somewhere between blue-ish and green-ish, and depending on what you put it with, can read either way.


For instance, next to greens, it looks blue.


And next to blues, it looks green.


Adding both colors allows enough context for the color to sit in the middle again.



Next up, Kita by Lotta Jansdotter in Fog is a fairly cool grey.


And continues to look grey when it’s next to blue.


However, placed next to other greys (especially warm greys), it starts looking pretty blue. Which was problematic when I was working on a grey section of a quilt.


It bridges blues and greys quite nicely though, when used together. I was once told that it’s easier to match fifty different shades of red than to match to just one, and it’s completely true. When everything is the same shade, every small difference sticks out. But if there are lots of varying shades of the same color, your brain stops picking out differences, and instead just reads it all as continuous value.

Use in Design

So how can you use this in your designs? The key is to remember that our brain sees differences in color, and use that fact to our advantage. Let’s work with a fabric that is often considered a difficult color.


This is Sparrows by Joel Dewberry in Good grief what were you thinking Joel Dewberry Green. Also known as ochre. Also known as baby poop brown. It’s the green undertone that does this particular color in. I actually had trouble photographing the color, it’s a touch more green than it appears in this photo.

So let’s say, like me, you have this print in your stash, and you don’t know what to do with it. Let’s first break down the color. This particular brown has a lot of greenish-yellow in it, which is what gives it the slightly sickly look. But it does have red in it as well. To make it look less sickly, we need to minimize, or downplayΒ the amount of green we perceive, and maximize, or increase the amount of red or yellow we perceive.


What doesn’t work well, is throwing it in with a bunch of rich browns. Rich browns have a strong red undertone to them. Because our brain picks out the differences, it means it minimizes the reds in our print, and makes the greens even more apparent. Before I had this print stashed with my browns, and after writing this, I’m going to put it back with my yellows/golds, because it looks so sickly with the browns that I will never use it while it’s sitting there.


So how do we minimize the green tone? If we notice differences, then putting it next to strong green tones should make us notice the red and yellow more in our sparrow print. This works similar to putting the blue-green print next to green to make it look more blue. Because green is the complement of red, it also maximizes the red tone, so this is a particularly strong pairing. This print is reading much more rich and warm next to the lime tones, and it adds some nice depth to these greens.


The other thing we can try is to maximize the amount of yellow/orange we see in this print. We do this by adding the complementary color. We can use blue-purple (which is the complement of orange-yellow) to bring out the warmer tones in the brown print.Β I’ll talk more about complementary colors and how they work together in a future post.

Design Summary

To design with context in mind, follow these three steps:

1. Figure out the components of the color you’re working with.
As an example, let’s say I’m working with an aqua fabric. Aqua is made up of blue and green.

2. Figure out which of the components you want to maximize, and which you want to minimize.
In this example, I want to minimize the green, and maximize the blue.

3. Use it next to the color you want to minimize, or next to the complement of the color you want to maximize.
I could pair it with green to minimize the green tones, or pair it with orange to maximize the blue tones.

I hope that this helps you with future design projects! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. And if you want more of this type of thing, please let me know!

Linking up to the Sewing With Certainty tutorials @ Quilty Habit.


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74 thoughts on “Color Chat: Color in Context

  • Leanne

    I love playing with colour this way and this post is really helpful and clear. But I am not at all sure you have your A and B in the right places or else that is not a checkerboard but just a single solid block? You have A on the second from the right in the top row and B on the third from the right on the third row? I have certainly seen this effect often.

    • anne Post author

      Looking at your projects, I find that hard to believe! Your work is beautiful. πŸ™‚ However, if you ever want specific help, I will gladly offer it! I love nothing more than picking out fabrics and colors. πŸ˜€

  • Mary

    Awesome post. That grey grid always blows my mind. And I love how you showed the different tones in the brown fabric. I wonder if some of the fabrics I’ve just not liked in my stash have been unfairly judged based on what they were next to at the time.

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Mary! I love optical illusions, and that particular one is a favorite. πŸ™‚ I know I have fabric that I’ve purchased at the fabric store, and when I get it home I wonder WHAT I was thinking. I have a brown that reads purple (seriously, how?!) and some dark yellows that go olive-y brown that are always a creative challenge to work into a project. πŸ™‚

    • anne Post author

      Oh, definitely! Your work shows a color confidence that only comes with practice to the point of intuition. πŸ™‚ I love the way you mix colors, it’s very inspirational!

  • Adrianne

    Really excellent post Anne – I think I knew some of this intuitively but it’s so helpful having it all laid out like you have done. I know I like to use lots of different fabrics in my quilts – now I know why!

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Adrianne! Like Julianna, I can definitely believe you have an intuitive sense about all this stuff. πŸ™‚ It shows in your work! I LOVE color-coordinated scrappy, and part of that is that you can get away with throwing anything in the general color range together and get this super cool effect, and those outliers fit right in. πŸ™‚

    • anne Post author

      Aww, thanks Katy! <3 As long as I don't teach you so much that you won't let me pull fabric bundles together for you anymore. πŸ˜€

    • anne Post author

      Thank you Paula, that is the best compliment, ever! πŸ˜€ Please do share it! I’d love to get their feedback on it. πŸ™‚

  • Nony

    I have that exact Joel Dewberry fabric, and I, like you, wonder what he was thinking, and what *I* was thinking when I brought it home! But I know it will have a home SOMEwhere, someday, in something I make – your examples really nailed why I struggle to work with it. Thanks for the breakdown and making it all so clear. GREAT post! :^)

    • anne Post author

      Hahaha I’m glad I’m not the only one who got home with that particular print and thought “wait, what?!” But I love Joel, so I know there must be some redeeming quality to that print! I should challenge myself to use it somehow. πŸ™‚ Maybe in a bag with a bunch of greens in it?
      I’m so glad the post was helpful to you! πŸ˜€

    • anne Post author

      Yes!!! I think about that, too! Although I would posit that it’s not color that creates shapes, but rather contrast (which color plays a big part of!) πŸ™‚ That’s a post that I want to write, but probably a bit down the line. I actually have a pipe dream of writing a book about designing with color, and contrast being the thing that creates shapes would be somewhere in the first chapter. πŸ˜€

  • Maree

    Thank you so very much for this awesome post!!! The timing is absolutely perfect since I’m pulling fabrics for an upcoming mystery quilt. Earlier today, I thought about taking out a couple of my reds, but after reading this, they will definitely stay in and give some extra spark to the project. Thanks, again! I’m really looking forward to more of your color chats! ☺

    • anne Post author

      Thank you Maree! I’m so happy it was helpful! πŸ˜€ I’d love to see pictures of your project! I already have a few more color chats planned, and I’m so excited to share them!

    • anne Post author

      Thanks for providing the link up! Which reminds me, I should have put a link to your link up! I’m sorry! I’ll be sure to remedy that. πŸ™‚

  • Melissa

    Thank you! Finally a great post that is focused on proper colour theory! This applies to so many fields of work, but I’m amazed this doesn’t come up more in Quilting.. Awesome job

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Melissa! πŸ˜€ I see color theory covered in quilting books from time to time. I love color theory (and there’s still more for me to learn!) and I expect it will work it’s way into future posts as well. πŸ™‚ Thanks so much!

    • anne Post author

      Thank you! Your wish is my command! πŸ˜€ I have quite a few posts planned, most of them dealing with different aspects of color theory. πŸ™‚ I hope you will enjoy them when they are finished.

  • Jess

    Anne this is brilliant! I hosted a series on colour theory on my blog earlier in the year – do you mind if I add the link to this post on the summary page? We did cover context but this explains it in a different way which I think resonates with a lot of people :o)

    • anne Post author

      Jess, I’d be thrilled to be added to your post! πŸ˜€ Thank you so much for the offer! I’ll go take a look at your post as well, there’s always more for me to learn from other people’s presentations on color theory. πŸ™‚ Thank you so much for the encouragement!

  • Elise Lea

    Great post, you did a great job explaining this subject. I completely agree that context is very important when it comes to color. It is amazing how colors like the illusion you showed can look so different when next to other colors.

    • anne Post author

      Thank you so much! I know I’ve created a few things where I didn’t pay attention to how the colors worked together and I’ve always regretted it. πŸ™‚ Now I try not to take any shortcuts!

    • anne Post author

      Please do so, I’d be delighted! πŸ˜€ I’d love to hear their feedback. πŸ™‚ Thanks so much for the kind words, and I hope it’s helpful with your next project!

  • jayne

    I am so late to the party! Great, great post! I admit, I throw colors together like confetti sometimes! I find when I do that, it works and when I try to think too hard…its not so good! Color theory is something I need to work on, keep working on and start to work on!

    Thank you so much. You have the best posts!

    • anne Post author

      Thanks so much Jayne! πŸ˜€ It sounds like you have great instincts, it’s just learning what makes up those instincts so your brain and instincts can work together. πŸ™‚ My biggest problem with color theory is that it’s often taught as rules, but they don’t really teach how to apply it. It took me a while to internalize it enough to be able to make it useful, and I’m still learning! More posts coming on this stuff, though! I love talking about color. ^_^

  • Lorna McMahon

    You need to write more of these posts, Anne. Your summary reminds me of my Flowers in the Sun quilt. I used turquoise flowers with green leaves paired against an orange background. Seriously, I have never heard of this before. And it makes so much sense! Thank you for sharing!

    • anne Post author

      Thank you, Lorna! πŸ˜€ I have a few more posts planned already, and I’m excited to share them! πŸ˜€ I went and looked up the quilt you referred to, and those flowers definitely pop out as blue! It’s a gorgeous quilt! πŸ™‚

  • Lisa McGriff

    If there was a blog post of the day award, you get it! This was awesome. I have a daughter that is artistic and can see and understands color, when I’m in doubt I invite her up for lunch then we discuss color and pick fabrics. I’m getting better but not quite there yet.

    • anne Post author

      Awww, thank you so much! πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ You totally made my day! Color stuff is just like everything else, it’s all about the practice. πŸ™‚ Although I will say, it’s almost always more fun with someone else helping when it comes to picking fabric, regardless of how much you may or may not understand!

  • Sarah @ Berry Barn Designs

    This is excellent! A great explanation of something we see and do automatically a lot when working with color, but might not understand why. Somewhat intuitive in the Dogwood print, but very helpful to have spelled out with a tricky color like the Sparrows. Thanks : )

    • anne Post author

      I’m so glad you found it useful! Thank you. πŸ˜€ Thinking about this, I wonder if it’s more intuitive because there are really only two colors making up aqua, but when you get to browns and olives, you have three colors vying for attention? I’ll have to think about that more!

  • Jen

    What a great post, thank you! I’m going to be staring at the first image for a long time — hard to believe that squares A & B really are the same. Pretty awesome trick πŸ™‚

  • Jessica

    This is by far the most useful post I’ve read on colour and how you get them to play together nicely. “Pick colours that play well together” isn’t really that helpful for me, knowing how to minimise or maximise the colours in those fabrics by pairing them with others and how to pick those colours is brilliant. Thank you so much!

    • anne Post author

      Thank you so much, Jessica! What a great compliment! I’m thrilled that the post was so useful for you. πŸ˜€ I have a whole bunch of posts planned throughout the year on how to work with color, and hopefully they will be equally helpful. πŸ™‚

  • jody deschenes

    girl, can’t believe you’re raggin’ on one of my favorite colors, baby poop brown! someone once told me it was a cross between mustard and relish, so i just named it mustish. i find it far easier to work with than white!! (: and heck Ya, it looks great with purple – love me a little baby poop/mustish on my purple!

    • anne Post author

      HAhahahaahaha I <3 you. πŸ˜€ I want you to know that Weeks Ringle teaches in all her classes and books about how ochre is a very under-appreciated color because it goes with almost anything. So there you go. You're not alone in your love for mustish. πŸ˜€

    • anne Post author

      Thanks so much, Daisy! I have a bunch more of these types of posts planned throughout the year. I’m going to try to post one a month. πŸ™‚ Hopefully the others will be equally useful!

  • Am L

    Great explanation. It’s like when people try and paint a room, they don’t think about how the other colors in that room will affect the resulting color once it’s on their walls. If I am pulling fabrics from my stash at night for a project, I often make certain the undertones gel in daylight before I make my final edits. The color temperature of the light in the final environment is important to consider too, from my experience.

    • anne Post author

      Ohh that’s a great analogy! Also, I can’t tell you how many times I look at my fabrics in the morning and find that they look totally different than they did at night. πŸ™‚ Especially my greens, because of the florescent lighting we have in our kitchen (where I sew). Those are all great points!