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Color Clinic – Make Room for the Negative

Welcome to another installment of Color Clinic. Today I’m answering two questions; that’s right, two for the price of one! They’re both related to negative space, so it seemed fitting to feature them together. So let’s get to it!


I often read about “negative space”, this great new adventure in quilting. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but, is there a restriction to the colours you can use (I mainly saw “neutrals” being used), and how does a bold choice of colour affect the rest of the quilt, its contrast, etc ?


Thanks for the great question, Cecile! You are definitely not alone in being unsure about the meaning of negative space! Over time, the casual misuse of the term has led it to mean a lot more than it used to. However, in design negative space is simply the area around and between the main subject (or focal point) of your design. The main subject of the design is sometimes called “positive space” in contrast to the negative space.


Negative space is used to give boundaries to the edge of the subject matter, and also give the viewer’s eye somewhere to rest. It’s certainly not required in all quilt designs, but it is an important element in minimalist and more graphic quilt designs.


Some people consider negative space to be “boring” but it really doesn’t have to be! The use of low volume fabrics in the modern quilt movement is one technique that has been used to give texture to the negative space without taking too much attention from the positive space around it.


Negative space can also be used to create secondary designs. Some of the most classic examples of this is the arrow in the FedEx logo (the arrow appears between the E and x) as well as the vase and faces optical illusion. In quilting, these secondary designs show up when the background of the block matches the color chosen for the negative space. For instance, the sashing and border of the maple block quilt above creates a very interesting secondary design of geese and squares. You might also notice that using only two colors gives it an optical illusion quality; it becomes less clear what’s the foreground and what’s the background.

You’ll notice that none of that requires a specific color, which is great. You often see neutrals being used because neutrals already naturally don’t catch the viewer’s eye as much as saturated tones. This means they’re well suited for negative space since they play well and generally sit in the background. That by no way means you have to use neutrals, however!

I’m going to go into all of that in far more detail in response to Joelle’s question below. So please keep reading for the answer to the second half of your question.


I am interested in how to choose a background color other than the traditional neutrals once one already has one’s block fabrics chosen. Seems like it’s always black, white, gray or tan hiding in the background.


What a fun question, and as you can see above, you’re not alone in wondering about it! There is even a book called “Beyond Neutral” by John Q Adams that talks about using colors other than neutrals in the background.

First, I feel I need to just point out that there’s nothing wrong with neutrals. They are the unsung heroes of color design! However, it’s always fun to try something new, so let’s talk about choosing a background color (which is generally the same thing as picking the color for your negative space.)

There are a couple of questions you should ask yourself about your quilt design when choosing the background color:
1. What color do you want to get the most attention?
2. What do you want to minimize, if anything?

The answers to those questions will be useful for figuring out your desired contrast with each color. The higher the contrast, the more it will grab the attention of the viewer.


Neutrals are the easy fall back because they provide generally equal contrast to every color, so every color gets equal attention. We often pick fabrics and colors we love for our quilts, so it’s often desirable to give them all equal billing.


Once you start moving away from desaturated neutrals, you need to pay more attention to how the colors interact. Anything in your fabric that is the same or similar color as your background will be less prominent, and the things that are least similar to your background will become focal points. This goes back to what I was saying last week about contrast: the thing you use the most of will get the least amount of attention. Notice above how the feathers in the mustard print seem to float above the background in relation to the solid on the left, and the violets really stand out.


This all assumes you’re using a color that’s present in your block fabrics. You can also add a color that’s not already there. Just remember that the closer colors are on the color wheel, the less contrast there is. So picking a purple background for a pink and green quilt will cause the green to stand out more than the pink. This is because purple and pink are closer on the color wheel than purple and green.


On the other hand, choosing yellow-orange or blue-violet (both of which are about halfway between green and pink) will create equal amounts of contrast with both colors. Above you can see the same design with purple, yellow-orange, and blue-violet as the background.


The other thing to keep in mind when choosing a background color is that the color will “flow” into any areas that are next to it that are the same or similar color. This can lead to fun spins on classic blocks. For instance, above, a simple X block now looks like a totally different quilt and all I did was change the background color.

I hope that helps you have the confidence to go forth and pick some colorful backgrounds! I look forward to seeing your designs!

I’m curious, what tips and tricks do you use to choose background colors, and how do you approach negative space? Leave your thoughts or questions in the comments below!


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