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Color Chat: Contrast

Note: This was originally a guest post on Leanne @ she can quilt‘s blog.

Today I wanted to talk about contrast–in particular how it relates to color and how to design with contrast in mind. 


Introduction to Contrast

First, a quick definition. Contrast is the measure of how different two (or more) things are. High contrast means that things are very different (black and white have high contrast), while low contrast means things are quite similar (cream and white have low contrast). It’s important to keep in mind that contrast is somewhat subjective, and it does depends on the context of everything else that’s around it. I’ll show you some examples of that later. 


Contrast is important because it’s how we see shapes and lines. Do you see the ninja in the picture above? Of course not, it’s a ninja. But also because there is no contrast between the ninja and its background. There are no edges defined. 


Add some contrast between the ninjas and their background, and voila! Our ninjas are no longer so stealthy. (Lego ninja photo by east_mountain on Flickr. Image used under creative commons license.) 


We see shapes because the edges of a shape contrast with the area around it. Camouflage works by reducing that contrast, and the edge of the shape is lost. (Flounder image by Moondigger on Wikimedia. Image used under creative commons license.) The painter Bev Doolittle is a master at using this to great effect in her work. Here is a link to one of her earliest camouflage works, with pinto horses hidden among rocks.


Our eye is naturally drawn to the area of highest contrast. In the image above, the shape of the flower immediately grabs our attention. However, it takes a bit longer to notice the other details, such as the shape of the leaves which are a lower contrast area. (Lotus flower image by Dennis Jarvis. Used under creative commons license.)

Designing with Contrast

Now that we know what contrast does, let’s talk about two ways to use it in design: defining shapes, and creating “pops” of interest or areas that draw our eye. 


Since our eye sees shapes based on edges created by contrast, we can bring attention to different shapes by creating different areas of higher contrast. I’ll use the square in square design shown above to illustrate. 


Generally, this pattern is used to bring attention to each individual square in a square. 


However, if we lower the contrast between elements within each square, we can bring attention to different shapes. For instance the four diamonds formed in the center, and the zig-zag pattern border around the outside. 


Or even a star flower with a background diamond. The underlying piecing is the same, it’s just a difference in where we place the colors that changes the contrast and allows us to see different shapes.  

In both of these examples, I used “scrappy” color to show that you can do this effect without using matching colors. There just needs to be lower contrast between the interior elements within the shape than between the edge of the shape and the background.

 That’s how we define shapes, but now let’s talk about creating “pops” of interest. Since our eye is naturally drawn to the area of highest contrast (the area that is most different) using a small amount of something that is higher contrast will draw attention there. 


This is completely dependent on what else is going on in the quilt. For instance, if we take a low volume design and place small areas of color, we will be drawn to the color. Above, the red square in the center is where the attention goes. 


However, if we remove the red square, now we’re more likely to notice the darkest grey triangle in the corner. It’s there in both designs, but the red was a higher area of contrast before, so we noticed it the most. This can be used to your advantage if you want to draw attention away from something in your quilt and focus it elsewhere. 

Creating Contrast

So now we know what it is and what to do with it, but how the heck do we do it? Contrast is a bit subjective (we all see color differently) but with some color theory we can at least find a place to start.

Colors are made up of different components. There are many different ways of ordering these components but the way that makes the most sense to me is the HSB or Hue, Saturation, Brightness (also sometimes referred to as Value) system. 


Hue is often used synonymously with color, but they’re not quite the same. The rainbow is made up of all hues in the visible spectrum. However there are way more colors that we can see than what is in the rainbow! All the colors start with a base hue, though. We often use a color wheel to help represent them. 


From hue, we add saturation. Saturation is how intense the color is. High saturation is rainbow bright, while low saturation is close to greyscale. A black and white/greyscale image has no saturation at all. While the slider above shows white at one end, this is modified by the brightness, described below. Something that is middle brightness at no saturation is grey, not white. I’ll show examples of this in a bit.


Finally brightness or value is well, how bright the color is. Full saturation, full brightness is a rainbow color. No saturation, full value is white. No value, regardless of saturation is black. We can’t see any color when there is no brightness! 


Here are just a few examples to show how these work together. The aqua above is a blue-green hue, with high saturation, and high brightness. Charcoal grey is a red-orange with very low saturation and low value. Navy is a blue-violet with medium saturation and low brightness. Low volume fabrics are often cream-based which is a yellow-orange hue,  low saturation and high value. The reason this is important is because we can create contrast by working with any three of these components. 


Hue-based contrast is created by working with complementary colors. These colors exist on opposite sides of the color wheel, and therefore can’t get any further apart. Green and red, blue and orange, red-violet and yellow-green, etc. are all complementary colors. Using them together will create a high-contrast pairing. You can read more about complementary colors in a previous color chat


Saturation-based contrast is created by working with color and low-saturation neutrals like whites, creams, greys or black. Lower saturation areas will generally recede into the background, and we notice the color more. Low volumes with pops of color is a perfect example of this type of contrast. 


Finally, brightness- or value-based contrast is created by working with dark and light colors. Black and white is the highest contrast possible, but it’s possible to play with brightness-based contrast by using a saturated color and a darker version of that color as well. 


It’s important to note that we don’t have to use each of these independently. Components from each can come into play to create contrast. Navy and yellow-orange are examples that use hue (blue and orange are complementary), saturation (navy is lower saturation than our yellow-orange) and brightness (navy is low brightness, while yellow-orange is high brightness) to all create contrast.



Here’s a quick summary to recap what we’ve gone over, because there was a lot! 

  • Contrast is a measure of how different two things are.
  • Contrast helps us define shapes and areas of interest in our quilt designs.
  • Colors are made up of hue, saturation, and brightness (also called value.)
  • Hue is the base color (the rainbow is made up of all hues.)
  • Saturation is how colorful the color is (high saturation is rainbow color, low saturation goes towards greyscale.)
  • Brightness or value is how bright the color is (high brightness is rainbow bright, low brightness goes towards black.)
  • We can create contrast by contrasting hues, saturation, brightness or any combination of the three.

I hope this was helpful, and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask!


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