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Quilting Resources from Debbie Caffrey

Gaining Color Confidence & Teaching It!

with Debbie Caffrey - Debbie's Creative Moments, Inc.

How many times have you heard someone say, "I'm just not good with color!"? When I hear that, my first thought is, "I'll bet they can name the primary colors, the colors in the rainbow, and they would know how to mix paints in the primary colors to make orange, green, or purple!" This is what color is! It's just that simple.

Now, I didn't say that fabric selection is that basic! My approach to teaching color confidence and fabric selection avoids overwhelming the quilters with technical terms. Instead, it is more like identifying what it is that attracts the quilter, and how to achieve that result. I have outlined those things that I emphasize to my students. Below are the items that I refer to as the tools.

Everyone knows the concept of a color wheel, the primary colors, and how to mix them to create the secondary colors of green, orange, and violet. Convince your students that they know more about color than they realize. What they need is the skill to employ this knowledge.
Most anything goes with color combinations. They can be monochrome (all one color), analogous (colors next to each other on the color wheel), contrasting (colors across from each other on the color wheel), or some combination. Tell them to just learn the concepts, what to look at when reviewing a fabric grouping, and not to overly concern themselves with technical terms.

• Monochrome - Basically, this is different values of one color.
• Contrasting - Examples of contrasting colors are: red & green, yellow & purple, and blue & orange.
• Analogous - An example of an analogous color scheme (colors that are next to each other on the color wheel) is blue, blue-violet, violet, and red-violet. You can choose a variation on this by skipping a color between two neighboring colors, such as, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, and blue-green. When using this color scheme, try not to have uneven jumps between colors as you are moving around the color wheel. Make the steps as uniform as possible. This is not an easy task when you are working with fabrics. That's where having a great fabric stash and access to a wonderful quilt shop come in handy. Consider pushing your analogous color scheme a little more by including the contrasting color (across the wheel) as a "zinger". In the blue, blue-violet, violet, & red-violet example, yellow-orange would be a good choice.

Intensity refers to the pureness and clarity of the color, like those on the color wheel. The "dusty colors" are grayed and less intense. Perhaps what a fabric grouping needs is not a different color, but to replace a fabric with one that is more or less intense.

The proportion of color has much to do with the success of a quilt. Analyze a fabric or quilt that you are attracted to, and consider the proportion of the colors. More discussion on this is in the section discussing focal fabrics.

The value of your fabrics is the most important single element in fabric selection! Value is how light or dark a fabric is. When determining the value of a print fabric, don't just look at the background. The fact that a print is on a black background doesn't automatically make it the darkest fabric in your grouping.

• View your fabrics from a distance. Put them on a design wall and stand back, or put them at the bottom of a staircase and view them from the top.
• Squint or remove your glasses. This may blur the pattern enough to read a fabric's value. Another thing you may try is looking through a camera lens, a peep hole for doors (can be found at hardware stores& is easy to carry to class), a reducing glass, or backwards through a pair of binoculars.
• Make a Xerox copy of the actual fabrics. The black and white image removes the confusion of color and lets you focus on only the value.

Use your values to create quilts with high contrast (those with a big difference between your lightest and darkest fabrics), low contrast (those with little difference between the lightest and darkest fabrics), or that use a gradation of values to create movement. This is not something that must be either…or. With effort and experience you can combine these concepts into one visually exciting quilt that makes the viewer's eyes move around the quilt.

Add visual texture to your quilt. Have you ever seen a fabric that looks like it should feel fuzzy or bumpy? Other things to consider when selecting fabrics for visual texture are: Scale (size of the printed figure); spacing (distance between the figures); style (floral, geometric, novelty prints, tone on tone, etc.). Consider how you'll treat directional fabrics (Ignore their designs or fuss with them.) Be careful with your use of solids. The use of one or two solid fabrics may draw too much attention to those pieces and lessen the impact of the overall design.

Consider the lighting when making your fabric selections. Will the quilt be used in a office where there's fluorescent lighting, in a bedroom with soft lighting, in a family room with southern exposure, etc.? Perhaps you'd like to make your fabric selection in that lighting. Fabrics look much warmer in natural light. Your value contrasts may need to be stronger if the lighting is lower.

So far I've spoken about the tools or skills that will help you select fabrics, but now I'd like to give you some more "hands on" ways for using them and teaching others to select fabrics. One way is to use what I call safe color schemes. This is how I design my mystery quilts. They are practically "no fail", as long as you remember to use your basic tools - intensity, proportion, value & contrast (high, low, gradation, or a combination), and visual texture.

• Traditional - Choose the indigo & white; red & white; red, white & blue; etc. color schemes that are always successful.
• Theme - Choose a theme for your fabrics. Some examples are: primary colors, jewel tones, seasonal (fall, Halloween, Christmas), Victorian, tropical, plaid, etc. This list could go on forever.
• Interior decorating or "dressing your quilt" - Decorators often use the "rule of three" and choose one floral, one geometric, and a solid. I call this "dressing your quit" or, in other words, choosing your fabrics like you would select clothes to wear.
• Control background - Any fabrics can be used together in a quilt as long as you use a control background fabric to "float" them.

Probably the easiest way to approach fabric selection is with a focus fabric. When helping a beginner choose fabrics for class, suggest that she start by finding a fabric she likes. Help her analyze why she likes it. What colors does she like in it? Note the proportion of the colors. Stretch when you begin to select fabrics. Avoid the tendency to overmatch the colors! Maybe she likes the print, but wants her quilt to have peach accents and not the pink she sees when she puts her nose on the bolt. Pull the peach fabric, place it next to the focus fabric, and tell her to take a step back to view the fabrics. Often that pink will now read like the peach fabric she desires. Don't overmatch the value and intensity. The quilt usually needs a fabric that has more or less punch than an exact match.

Once you have that focus fabric begin brainstorming. Pull any fabric that might be considered. Don't make any final decisions until you've pulled many (dozens, perhaps) fabrics, preferably from several color families. Arrange and rearrange the bolts, studying how the fabrics look when placed next to a different fabric. Expose larger amounts of fabrics that will be used often or in larger pieces and smaller amounts of those that will be used sparingly. If your shop has fat quarters, use them for this "fabric audition". It's much easier for the quilter to visualize how the pieces will appear when cut.

Begin fine tuning by paring down the fabrics to the number needed for the quilt. Your quilters will be amazed at how working from many fabrics, back toward the necessary number of fabrics, is so much simpler than working from a few and rejecting each new one you audition. Tell them to reject any fabric that they really don't like. Don't force it! Are you having trouble making a decision between two or more different fabrics of the same color? Why use one when three will do the job? Using several will probably add more visual texture and interest. Don't be surprised if one of the fabrics that gets dismissed from the collection happens to be the original focus fabric! It has done its job and created a wonderful fabric palette, but somehow, it no longer has a role to play in the quilt. That's okay!

Does the quilt require a background? Perhaps it's best to choose it near the end. Select one to show off your fabric palette at its best. Don't choose a directional print unless you are prepared to ignore its design or fuss with it.

One of my best pieces of advice for fabric selection comes from an eighth grade English teacher. She was asked why she spent more than ten weeks teaching students to diagram sentences. After all, literary and grammatical rules are broken all the time to create impact. Mrs. Finley promptly replied, "You have to know the rules in order to break them!" I have found the same in fabric selection for quilts. Knowing how and why fabrics behave as they do, allows you to break the rules and create a more exciting quilt in the end.

If you have chosen a "safe" color scheme, and have gathered all of the perfect fabrics to accomplish that, you're now ready to do what Roberta Horton suggests. "Go in and mess it up a bit!" Have some fun, and add your personality to the quilt!