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Color Chat: Color in Context

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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