The Value of Value
Making Educated Color Choices
You’ve probably heard the line “The caterpillar does all the work; the butterfly gets the credit.” The same is true in the realm of color—the hue gets the credit but the value does all the work.
Value is the most important component when dealing with color. Using the full range of values—or as many as you can—from very light to very dark will change a ho-hum design into a piece of art with a real WOW factor. It can make embroidered art sing and draw desired attention to a corporate logo.
A post on my Embroidery Line years ago caught my attention and made me realize how important color education is in the world of embroidery.
Some complex designs use as many as five shades of a single color. Having only fifty colors of thread does not seem enough. I have trouble selecting the perfect 5 shades for a design. Either the shades do not seem to be in the same family or, when they are actually stitched, you can’t tell the difference. I could ask the customer for input but when there are two or more shades of the same color, the customer seems more confused than I. Someone with an art background could select colors that go well together but have enough difference to be noticed in the sew out, but the rest of us need some help.
This is a very sophisticated question and to understand the answer is to have a comprehension of color selection that can only benefit your embroidery work.
The Attributes of Color
Color has three attributes: hue, value and chroma. You can’t change one without changing the other two. If I told you the length and the height of a room, could you draw that room? No, you would need the width as well.
To try to understand color by any less than the three attributes diminishes our understanding of it—and our ability to communicate about it. You need all three attributes of a hue in order to determine if it works with the other hues in the design and if it is strong and an ideal choice in its own right.
We can’t mix thread like we can ink and paint, but we can learn to choose well—and not forget that the color of the goods is an important part of the equation.
A Baker’s Dozen Color Tips
If you make a concerted effort to learn about color and make educated choices instead of random guesses, you can multiply a stash of 50 cones or spools of thread by as much as four or more.
1) Light colors advance and appear to be in the front of a design. Dark colors recede and are perceived to be more in the background. If the design has all light or all dark colors, you will sacrifice depth of field and excitement but you can work with this limitation if you understand about texture, appearance and surrounding colors.
2) Light values illuminate and darks add depth so don’t forget both ends of the value scale as well as those in between. Use a value chart. Photography stores will have them or make your own. The seven gray value levels on the neutral pole are coded N 2/ to N 8/. The N stands for neutral. Pure black would be coded N1/ and pure white N9/. (More on creating a thread value chart and a stitched color wheel in next month’s Hart of Embroidery.)
3) Color is affected by the color that surrounds it. A perfectly chosen PMS color will appear completely different when stitched on a bright or strong hued garment. The color of the garment will wash over the stitching and change the color’s appearance. We should always be more concerned about color appearance than color itself.
4) When both warm and cool colors appear in a design, place the warm in the front and the cool in the back to enhance the feeling of depth. Cool colors recede and work well with panoramic views. They are tranquil and soothing.
5) Be aware that when you have all cool colors, some become warm and when you choose all warm colors, some will appear cool. Brown as well as black and white can be warm or cool depending on the hues that are combined with them. Once you understand warm and cool you can differentiate between warm and cool hues. A warm pink is a peachy pink with hints of yellow and red; a cool pink has hints of purple or blue. A warm green would be a yellowish green. A cool green would reflect more blue light rays.
6) Choose colors two or three away from each other in value for a better color “bang” unless you are trying to depict volume—gradual changes in value create dimension.
7) Choose colors close or the same in value if you want the design to take precedence over the color, or a message to make a greater impact than the graphic. A design in same or similar values will be read by the eye as calm and unified, allowing the eye and brain to pay attention to the message or the intricacy of the design.
8) Texture created by fancy fills and patterns will appear a different color than the same area stitches in a flat fill.
9) Satin stitches are shiny and will appear closer. Fill stitches appear matte and will appear to be farther back when combined with satin stitches.
10) Changing the angle of stitches will change the perception of the color.
11) Line up thread choices and look at them with a value finder. (A value finder helps eliminate the hue and allows you see the value—squinting can help as well as it disrupts the light rays). A red transparent value eraser can often be found in the quilting department of your fabric store. You will find that light hues are not always light in value and dark hues can actually be medium in value.
12) Scan your thread chart (or threads) and look at them in gray scale. This trick will also help you arrange your thread by value if you choose to do so. I find that a value arrangement helps me choose quicker and more accurately for the effect I want to achieve. Scan your trial design as well. Designs that look good in gray scale will be dynamite when you add color. This is a great way to test your color choices.
13) Although we can’t pour our colors into a pot and shake them to make a new hue, we can take the colors the manufacturer’s offer us and “mix” them in the needle—two or more colors in a wide-eyed needle create exciting combinations. Stitch lighter densities of different colors on top of each other to trick the eye into seeing a new hue. Think carefully about what colors surround others and make the color appearance work for you.
When We Get to Choose
Corporate logs need good design and good color selection. But, so many times the graphic designs we stitch are a “done deal”. The colors are non-negotiable. In this situation we can still demonstrate color prowess by suggesting stitch types and textures as well as educated garment color choices. If there is any play in the colors, make the value scale and the warm/cool tricks work for you and your customer. Show, don’t tell, how some carefully planned tweaks can improve the impact of their design. A logo is meant to be seen and you can help that happen. Digitizing that implements stitch direction and texture can turn a static logo into a dynamic statement. Add careful and well-informed color choices and you will stand out from the competition.
When we are the designer of the graphic as well as the digitizer (or the director of the digitizer) we can play with color and texture more. Take charge, be the professional the customer expects, and create a logo that sings. Your will find referrals become commonplace when word of mouth is telling potential clients that there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about your work that demands a closer look.
When we create our own designs for retail sale we can get as creative as we wish—and then there is always the possibility of creating framed embroidered art…where color choice and the little “worker bee” called value can make a huge difference in appearance and salability.
Understanding color starts with understanding that there is no such thing. Blue birds are not blue, grass is not green. The color that we perceive is created by the reflection of light rays. Objects absorb some of the rays of the spectrum and reflect others. Those reflected light rays are read by the eye and understood by the brain as color. Blue and yellow tints and shades show us the bright Spring green of the early leaves. Less yellow and more blue is reflected in the darker, more mature green of late summer. Light reflections also speak to us of the autumn leaves which do not change color but change in composition and thus reflect light differently.
To understand the role of light in the perception of color, stand outside in the shadowy twilight where all things seem gray and devoid of hue and then shine a light and watch the colors appear.
Hug the great this month and leave the mediocre behind by learning to make knowledgeable color choices. The kind of passion that makes embroiderers ask the questions and seek the answers, striving always to offer the best to the customer defines the difference between a job and a vocation. Doing makes learning easier…and choice, not chance is the mark of a professional.