Learn to Design Unique Quilts with Value

Of all the elements of design–line, color, texture, shape, form, value, and size–I think the most difficult one to grasp is value. Not only understanding what it is, but how to use it when you're in the process of designing a fiber art piece. How can you use value to your advantage? How do you gauge value when some of your fabrics have nap, or are shiny or sheer?

For answers, I turned to someone who is an expert at designing with value, Carol Taylor. Vibrant colors, striking contrasts, use of value, as well as heavy machine quilting and embroidery are hallmarks of Carol's quilts. She has won six "Best of Show" awards in her career, with six different quilts. She also has a degree in teaching, so she's great at explaining what she's learned to others, like in her Quilting Arts WorkshopTM video, "Art Quilt Design: Strategies for Success."

Pokey Bolton: What is "value" and how does it differ from color or hue?

Carol Taylor: Value means the darkness or lightness of a color. You can line up values of a certain color pretty easily from light to dark, like a light purple (orchid or violet) to a dark purple like a royal purple color.  It gets harder when you try to do this with a variety of colors like lining up values of yellow, orange, red, and purple for instance and try to have some of each color in each value. That is part of what we learn with this project.

PB: Why is value important in design? What does value do for a design? I know you can make objects in a landscape look closer or farther away, but how do you make it work for you in an abstract?

CT: Value gives you the contrasts in lightness and darkness which always enhance a piece and give it more layers or depth. It does the same thing within a design and without those value contrasts, the piece becomes more simple and less interesting. Throwing in the different values will make it stand out and have more depth. I don't think there are any hard and fast rules for value that you can't stretch a little, but basically the darker values recede and the lighter ones come forward.

PB: When you have a mass of fabrics in front of you of all different types, how do you go about sorting them by value? For example, sheers vs. shiny fabrics, patterns vs. solids? Are there any tricks you use?

CT: This sorting of fabrics in value order is tricky and something I continue to work on and practice. It definitely gets better with practice. I try to line mine all up by letting the same amount of each fabric show (1") which tends to give you an even better look when you step back and try to see if the values are in the proper sequence. I definitely use that trick, and also always move way across the room to view it to see if any really stand out as being in the wrong spot. And I squint; this makes them run together in an even flow of value. If one stands out, then I try moving it to the proper place. But one thing you'll find is that value is always relative, so where you place a certain fabric in one line of values may not be the same if you use it in another.

PB: When collecting fabrics, do you think some people have a hard time collecting a variety of values? Perhaps they like pastels or dark intense colors and collect mostly those? What advice might you give them?

CT: I think most quilters tend to buy medium value fabrics when they're just choosing what they like. I know I did! I then liked the really dark, intense values next and did buy some of those, but not as many as I should have.  The lights were the value I tended to stay away from because I'm not a pastel person, and don't really like those colors. What I've learned though is that I need to buy those and use them because having the light value only enhances the mediums and the darks more, so I've grown to like light value fabrics for what they can add to my quilts by allowing me to use the whole spectrum of value.

So there you have it, an explanation of value, plus a reason to go out and expand your fabric stash!

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