Day and night, light and darkness—this polarity is of fundamental significance in human life and nature generally.
—Johannes Itten, The Art of Color
Concept and Inspiration
Superficially, the contrast between light and dark may appear to be the most obvious form of contrast. Black is dark, white is light, and a myriad of gray tones range between them. Items knit in black and white or a range of grays are eye-catching, successful multicolor projects. Do not be ashamed for choosing these color combinations for your knitting projects—easy contrast can be excellent contrast and is in no way inferior to more complex contrast. I have used simple light-dark contrast in the Albers Cowl (above) and Mosaic Cowl (below) here:
Rembrandt is a master of using light and dark to create drama and evoke emotional responses to his etchings and paintings. Consider The Philosopher in Meditation, in which light from a window illuminates the lone figure of the philosopher, or The Night Watch, in which the light that bathes the officers guarding the gate contrasts with the darkness that surrounds them.
From these considerations, let us return to the quotidian task of determining light-dark contrast so we can make good choices when selecting yarn for, say, a pair of colorwork mittens. Determining relative lightness and darkness is easy for black and light gray, but what about purple and blue? Yellow and red? A semisolid purple and a speckled pink? Like all aspects of color theory, determining value is a skill. But there are tools and techniques to help you. Here are the yarns from my stash that are currently sitting on my desk.
I have performed a quick sort of these yarns, arranging them from darkest (on the left) to lightest (on the right). It is not a perfect sort, and I did it using the first of three methods for value determination: squinting. My husband, who worked as a high-end interior painter for years, taught me this method: “Just squint and imagine the colors are gray.” Try this method using two skeins of yarn that have obvious light-dark contrast, such as a rich purple and a pastel blue, and you should be able to see the contrast without seeing the hues.
If you find that method to be ridiculous, you can use a value finder, which is a piece of red or green plastic. When you view fabric or yarn through a value finder, you will see only shades of gray—extremely helpful for quilters working with patterned fabrics for which light-dark contrast is difficult to determine. For about ten bucks, you can have one in your bag, available anytime you purchase fabric or yarn and don’t feel like squinting.
The third tool for assessing value is likely within arm’s reach, if not in your hand, now: your smartphone. Take a photo of your yarns and view it in grayscale. Or just apply the grayscale filter and examine your yarns. I applied the grayscale filter to the photo of my stash, which I sorted quickly using the squinty method.
Not bad. If I grabbed one ball from the far right, one from the middle, and one from the far left of this group, I could knit my colorwork mitten with confidence that the patterns would show up well, regardless of the hues of the yarns.
Our Preferences Foil Our Intentions
Armed with this knowledge and your smartphone, you are ready to apply value to your color choices. However, be aware that our personal color preferences often hinder our ability to create light-dark contrast in our projects. When I teach color theory workshops, the majority of eesh color combinations result from lack of light-dark contrast, even after I have discussed light-dark contrast in depth. Taking a peek at your stash might reveal the reason. Many people gravitate toward jewel tones—reds, purples, deep blues, deep greens—that are flattering to wear and seductive in the skein.
When I design and teach, I place colors into four value categories: light, medium-light, medium-dark, and dark. Jewel tones are nearly always medium-dark, with some edging into the categories of dark and medium-light. Regardless of their contrast of hue, medium-dark colors will never pop when used together. Consider this a justification for enhancing your stash with light and medium-light yarns. You can choose colors that are light because they have a lot of white added to them, such as pale blues and greens, or colors that have inherently light hues, like yellow.
We All Make Mistakes
Usually, I am good at using the squinty method to choose color combinations. I have employed it when creating kits for my Monomania sweater and when choosing scrap yarns to make stashbusting projects like the Fixation Cowl.
But last year, I chose these colors for a shawl prototype. I had been teaching color theory workshops for five years when I made this decision.
Granted, I chose them from my computer monitor, not in person, but when they arrived I immediately cast on and began to work out the shawl construction, ignoring the ennui the project evoked. A quick squint at my work reveals the problem. Eesh. Medium-light and medium-dark only. Sad.
Participants in my workshops often assure me that this color combination is “not so bad,” and I appreciate this kindness. Then I pull out the finished project and ask which version merits a second look.
This version features light, medium-light, and dark, with the dark really kicking up the contrast. No one wants to spend hours knitting a project that turns out “not so bad.”
Confirm Before Cast-On
If you adore your jewel tone combination and do not want to change the way the colors interact, choose a pale gray. Gray is a neutral, meaning that it contains no color. As a result, adding it to a color combination will provide light-dark contrast without adding more contrast of hue. You can also choose a paler or darker version of one of the hues you are using. If you are uncertain, use your tools—squinting, value finder, smartphone—to check before you start knitting. If you can identify multiple value categories—light, medium-light, medium-dark, and dark—congratulations! You have contrast! Unsquint and cast on!