Surface Design and Color Theory: How to Get Hue without Crying

What are your favorite color combinations for quilt art and surface design? I particularly love the combination of hot pink with orange and turquoise. Or red, yellow, and orange together. And then there are the sun-washed combinations of yellow, blue, and green.
fabric painting with surface design techniques
Two sets of ‘recognizable pures.’ It’s easy to tell that
the paint colors used in the surface design techniques
are derived from green (left) or red (right).
Art by Lynn Krawczyk.

If you have a large stash and a good sense of color, designing color combinations is fairly easy–you just play with swatches until you achieve an arrangement you like. (Or head to the fabric store.)

But if you are painting, printing, or dyeing fabric–especially if you are mixing your own colors–then some knowledge of color theory is very helpful. Understanding what happens when you combine complementary colors or knowing how to darken or lighten a hue with a neutral can mean the difference between visual joy and a muddy mess.

I have no formal art training, but I have devoured articles and classes on the subject of color theory. Still, absorbing the lessons in the abstract is different from applying them in your own studio.

Surface-design artist Lynn Krawczyk is a master of color theory. She has created a series of samplers using surface design techniques to illustrate the principles of color theory which she demonstrates in a new Quilting Arts WorkshopTM Color Theory Made Easy: An Exploration of Color & Composition through Surface Design.

Lynn’s samplers are mini fiber art pieces created using fabric paint with Thermofax screen printing, paint writing (with a nozzle bottle), and gelatin monoprinting on Kona cotton.

gelatin monoprinting on fabric by lynn krawczyk
Lynn made stripey gelatin monoprints using tints, tones,
and shades of orange on orange fabric.

Here are just a few nuggets of wisdom I learned from Lynn in the “Tint, Tone, Shade” segment of this Workshop.

  • Tints, tones, and shades are pure colors (primary, secondary, and tertiary) with neutrals (whites, grays, blacks) mixed in.
  • You can divide the results of mixing in the neutrals into two camps: recognizable pures and unrecognizable pures. For example, pink is clearly a derivative of red while brown may come from orange, yellow, or even green.
  • When you’re adding one color of paint to another to alter it (such as making a paler shade of green), use more of the weaker color (in this case, white) and add the more intense color (green) in small doses, gradually.
  • When the color you’ve mixed is not what you expected, think of how it is made in order to balance the hue. For example, if the orange you’ve mixed is coming out too yellow, add a little red (because red and yellow make orange).

By demonstrating how the paint and fabric colors interact via surface design techniques, Lynn shows how the principles of color theory apply in practice. Anyone who wants to learn more about how to use colors in the fiber art and surface design will benefit from Lynn’s simple yet thorough tutorials in Color Theory Made Easy, now available.

P.S. What’s your favorite color combo? Leave your comment below!

Other topics you may enjoy:


Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Monoprinting & Screenprinting, Quilting Daily Blog