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Color Theory.

I wanted to write a bit more about the Aurora scarf even though it's on hold until I get more yarn. Or actually I wanted to write about colors.


Understanding how colors work is really important in my work as a furniture conservator. We have to know how to mix different shades and be able to tint them the way we want. Often we mix our own paints by first making the binding material and then adding the pigments. Finding the right shade can be really difficult at times; often we have to retouch small areas of damaged paintwork, so the shade has to be exactly right or it will look clumsy. White is usually one of the hardest colors to get right, because it almost never is pure white (and even if it was, there are different shades of pure white pigment as well: zinc white, titanium white, lead white...) and the amounts of other pigments added are minimal: it's so easy to put too much yellow and then the whole patch is light yellow instead of cream. Another hard "color" to get right is gold. There are so many different shades of gold and you also have to match the sheen and luster of it, otherwise it will show.

We were taught quite a lot of color theory at school. I always found it really interesting and it has also helped me quite a lot when planning my knits. Which colors look great together is always a matter of taste and preference (your favorite colors and color combos are probably different than mine), and that's not really what color theory is about. Instead it helps you to find suitable color combinations in the aspect of tint, saturation and contrast, for example for fair-isle knitting. Some people might think that green and purple will look horrible together or blue and orange, and you could easily make them clash so that the result starts to irritate the eyes, but with right shades and tints the combination can be very pleasing: for example dark blue and rusty orange, or baby blue and a pure and warm orange, or dark green with plum.


It looks like there is a lot of contrast between these two yarns, but clearly not enough: my Totoro doesn't really stand out of the background... I made these some 4 years ago when I was still quite a beginner with knitting.

I'm still quite shy about combining colors and have many times picked colors that are too close to one another for fair-isle knitting so that they blend together and the pattern doesn't show. It's more likely to happen if you choose colors from the same color family (like two different greys even though when comparing the skeins next to one another their shade would be totally different), but can also happen with for example green and purple if their lightness and saturation are similar. I will not go into specifics about this because Jared Flood from Brooklyn Tweed wrote a while back a good two part article about picking colors for Icelandic yokes and I highly recommend you all read it. You can find the first part here and second part here. Really interesting reading!


What I wanted to write about color theory and colors in general is the way they look different when they are surrounded by different colors. Sometimes a color combination looks good one way, but less so if you switch the colors the other way round. I mean, if you substitute your MC for CC and CC for MC. I noticed this while knitting the Aurora scarf. I used the navy blue as my MC for the first half of the scarf and then decided to reverse the colors for the second half, using the dark red as the main color. The red dots on the navy blue base look really vibrant and clear, but when the colors are reversed the blue starts to look really dark and murky, almost black. It feels like the red sucks all the life out of the navy yarn. I've seen this happen in other knit's as well, and sometimes the colors start to appear totally different from what they look like when they are still rolled into a skein. For example: I like the combination of mustard yellow with dark blue, but in my opinion it often works better when the blue is the MC and yellow the CC. Otherwise the blue turns into a duller darker shade and the mustard starts to look much more intense hue of yellow.


The yarn sample photos are borrowed from the Garnstudio website.

Thinking colors as absolutes - "red is red, blue is blue" - is not valid. It can lead you wrong and to making mistakes in your knitting, like spending ages on a fair-isle color work only to realize afterwards that it all blends together. Understanding color theory can also open a lot of new doors: you can learn to trick your mind into believing one color is something else than it actually is. By combining colors (and now I'm not talking about mixing them together like paint but putting then next to each other) you can make blue appear more purple than it would be on it's own, or dull a too bright yellow, or make a green look lighter than it is. We did these kinds of exercises in school by cutting and gluing together pieces of different color papers (like the paint samplers you get from hardware stores) trying to get colors to clash or fade into one another.

The pink yarn looks much more intense when on it's own than surrounded with the brown that seems to tone it down. 

Colors are related to their surroundings and appear different depending on their context. Color theory suggests that when you combine colors that are almost complimentary to each other (like the dark blue and mustard yellow) our eyes perceive more light from the main color than the contrasting color, which affects not only the way we identify the colors, but also their hue and saturation. The difference in the saturation of the colors also plays a big part: if you combine a dull color with one that is pure and intense, the dull color appears duller and the other even more intense and vibrant. I guess this is what happens with the Aurora scarf with the red being of a purer shade than the blue.

Do you see how the red jumps out of the blue background, but the when the colors are reversed, the blue fades into the red? The yarn sample photos are borrowed from the Garnstudio website.


I think learning the basics of color theory is really essential for everyone knitting with more colors than one at a time. It is really interesting even though you wouldn't otherwise bother to study anything scientific, since it's not only about Newton and wavelengths of light, but also includes aesthetics and even psychology. This might help you with your yarn choices, and save you from some annoying mistakes. The clashing of colors can make a really nice effect when wanted and colorful socks can brighten even the dullest of days. You can also make certain parts of your knit work to pop with a right choice of color. And sometimes even the blending of colors can be an effect you want to incorporate into your work.

Just remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I'm not going to start arguing about matters of taste or fashion. This is just something that interests me and I hope you might find it helpful as well.

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