As knitters, we immerse ourselves in color with every project, whether it’s an oatmeal odyssey or a Kaffe Fassett 36-baller. Color is one of the most enjoyable aspects of knitting, but color can be confounding; there is so much choice. We want to play with color, but we also want to end up with a handknit that is pleasing, vibrant, beautiful. For this series, we called on designer Ann Weaver to apply both book-learning and experience to the puzzle of color. We’re not looking for rules, but insight to increase our confidence with color. We’re excited to hear from Ann, and hope you are, too.
Kay and Ann
Part I: What We Talk About When We Talk About Color
I talk about color a lot, and when I am not talking about color, I am thinking about color. People tell me I am “good with color.” I respond by saying I work at it. Being good with color is a skill, one that everyone can hone. You, too. Read on.
The first thing we talk about when we talk about color is what colors we like and what colors we do not. Common likes: purple, teal, chartreuse, other jewel tones, neutrals. Common dislikes: yellow, orange, pink, yellow again, and also yellow. Being good with color is not about changing the colors you like. Continue liking the colors you like! If you force yourself to purchase sweater quantities of colors you do not like, you will eventually trade, destash, or give away those sweater quantities.
Embrace your likes. What, then, does it mean to be good with color?
Bauhaus and Albers and Me (and You)
Allow me to digress.
I have a background in (among other things) studio art, and during my studies I learned some color theory in the art student sense—that is, with a focus on painting and mixing colors. Learning about the Bauhaus school, a German art and design school in Weimar from 1919 to 1933, in art history class had a greater impact on my work.
Bauhaus pioneered a synthesis of art, craft, and design that broke down previous distinctions between “fine art” and “craft” (read: stuff you look at versus stuff you use). All Bauhaus students, whether in the field of weaving or architecture, took the same first-year program of coursework, which covered basics of design including color theory. Craftspeople today—including knitters, all knitters—can take a page from the Bauhaus approach (and from those who work in the skilled trades).
Because the Bauhaus approach to color theory as taught by Johannes Itten was intended for all craftspeople, I use it when teaching color to knitters, albeit in a greatly simplified and adjusted form. The biggest color restriction knitters face is the limited—albeit extensive—palette from which we can choose. The colors available to us are the colors on the yarn store’s shelves (unless we are skilled dyers who can achieve our desired colors consistently, which you know is dang hard if you have ever tried).
But we are in good company with our limited palettes! Josef Albers, a Bauhaus teacher, painter, and color theorist, used paint straight from the tube. He didn’t mix his own colors; he chose his colors from commercially produced paints. And he applied the paint to the canvas with a palette knife rather than a brush to eliminate the expressive, individual element of the artist’s hand—literally—as shown through brushstrokes. Albers’s work is about color: choosing colors and combining colors. His expression is the color.
You are a skilled craftsperson. You are Albers. Do you feel empowered?
It’s About Combining
So, when we talk about color as Albers would talk about color, we talk about combining colors. And combining colors is not a like/dislike matter—it is a skill. And when we talk about combining colors, we talk about contrast. Contrast and lack of contrast make color combinations and the projects that use them bold, striking, and eye-catching or blah, meh, and eesh.
In this series, we’ll explore five types of contrast:
- Contrast of hue
- Light-dark contrast
- Complementary colors
- Warm-cool contrast
- Contrast of extension
These categories are not mutually exclusive, and there are no formulas for getting the correct amount or type of contrast. But the more you know about how colors interact, the better you will become at achieving your intended effect and avoiding blah, eesh results.
The Resource Pile
I will be talking about my favorite resources for color theory over the course of this series. I recommend these resources to everyone, but I encourage you to find inspiration around you.
Take photos of what you see.
Grab paint chips.
Bring items in colors you would like to incorporate into a knitting project with you when you shop for yarn.
Pull lots of skeins from the shelves and lay them out together in different combinations (then put them back neatly).
Look at the yarn in natural light.
Bring yarn from your stash that you’d like to use when you shop for yarns to combine with it.
A Useful Deck of Cards
At the top of the resource pile is a set of Color-aid cards. Think: Color—help! That’s what they do. On the obverse, they look like large paint chips or Pantone cards. Here are two of them.
But they’re better than paint chips or Pantone when you want to work on your color abilities while you gather colors you like and do color experiments. Color-aid cards tell you what color you’re looking at in technical rather than emotional or consumerist terms.
The top color could be called bluish-gray (untechnical term), Blue Dragon (hypothetical paint chip name), or Serenity (Pantone designation). Color-aid calls it B-P1-2. The bottom color is O-HUE—that is, true orange. This information is printed on the back of each card. (There’s a booklet in each pack of cards that explains this letter-number code.)
The top color is blue, it’s a pastel (meaning it is blue plus gray—grayish-blue), and it’s on the dark side of the possible blue pastels (B-P1-1 is the lighter blue pastel).
Although Color-aid designations lack the emotional appeal of “Serenity” or “Blue Dragon,” they provide a shared language through which we can objectively discuss color. A color wheel performs the same function in a limited way. To become good with color, you need to know what color you are looking at. This may seem obvious, but most people have had the experience of purchasing a piece of clothing, a skein of yarn, or a lipstick, bringing it home, and realizing that it is not the color it appeared to be in context of the store. Perhaps what seemed red is very orange. Perhaps the item is much darker or grayer than it seemed. Tools like Color-aid cards and color wheels reduce these discrepancies by providing an objective reference point for colors.
That’s enough for today. In Part 2, we will examine other color resources and talk hue.