Color 101

Have you ever noticed that some people have great taste in colors and others, well, to put it nicely…don’t?  It turns out that our color preferences and taste in color are based on our associations and experiences.  There are no “ugly” colors or combinations of colors.  What our brains perceive as ugly comes entirely from our associations and experiences with color.  

Of course, scientists have researched the colors more likely to be perceived as “ugly”. Pantone 448c, a drab, dark brown color, is the winner of that unsavory contest.  You can do a quick internet search to see the color yourself.   It is so ugly that in some countries, like Australia, it is used on tobacco packaging to deter people from buying and using tobacco products.  Keep in mind that this “ugly” color is also used in the Mona Lisa.  Mustard yellow also made the list of “ugly” colors.  Researchers found that if there is too much of the mustard yellow color in a room you are more likely to lose your temper (yikes!).  

One of the best tools available to us when choosing colors to knit or crochet with is the color wheel.  The color wheel was developed by Isaac Newton in 1666 when he was just 23 years old and home from Cambridge University because of a spreading plague.  While he was home he completed his prism experiments and found that sunlight (white light) is composed of 7 basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo.  Light is needed for color and when light shines on an object some color waves bounce off the object and others are absorbed.  Our eyes see what bounces off an object.  

Color wheels typically include primary and secondary colors.  Just to remind you, primary colors are red, yellow, and blue and when mixed create secondary colors, green, orange, and purple.  Some color wheels also include tertiary colors which are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green.  

Color harmony is the arrangement of colors and what knitters and crocheters can use to help select yarn colors for their projects.  If your brain perceives a color harmony as too bland it will disengage the eye/viewer.  If the color harmony is too chaotic then your brain becomes overstimulated and the eye/brain rejects what it cannot organize.  So which harmonies best please the eye/brain?

  • Analogous colors-any 3 colors which are side-by-side on the color wheel (yellow-green, yellow, yellow-orange).  When using an analogous color harmony 1 color typically stands out more than the other 2.  
  • Complementary colors-colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel (yellow-green and red-purple).  Complementary colors provide the maximum amount of contrast which creates the maximum amount of stability for the eye.    
  • Triad harmony-any 3 colors which are equidistant on the color wheel.  This harmony provides a high amount of contrast (red, yellow, blue).  
  • Split complementary harmony-any 2 colors that are close on the color wheel and 1 color on the opposite side of the color wheel.  This harmony creates a lower amount of contrast (purple, pink, yellow).

All of this is made slightly more complicated by the fact that, unlike paint, yarn colors can’t be mixed to create just the right color.  So how should a knitter or crocheter pick our yarn colors?  

  • Make swatches and rearrange color order if necessary.  Sometimes a color is just in the wrong section of the pattern.
  • If you are using more than 1 color then odd numbers of color work best (most of the time).  
  • If you need a lot of contrast take a black-and-white photo of your yarn.  The photo will give you a good idea of the contrast between the two colors.  
  • The proportion of color is important.  For example, if you want your project to have 1 overall color then that color should be used for 50% or more of the project, 40% should be color 2, and 10% should be color 3.  
  • When in doubt ask for help.  I have found that most local yarn shop owners are pretty great at putting colors together for a project.  

Color is a great way to express yourself as a knitter.  The most important thing to remember when picking out your colors is to choose what you like and what your eyes/brain find pleasing.  Don’t be afraid to experiment!   If you want to do a little more research on color theory and how it applies to knitting my sources are listed below.

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