Choosing Colors

A few weeks ago Nancy K. from Florida sent me an email wondering how I choose the colors for my fiber art.

The way I select colors for my work has changed over time.

Early on my work was based on photographs. I stayed fairly true to the colors of flowers or landscapes in the photos. Occasionally, I would change the background to make it more appealing or modify the intensity of a color to enhance or reduce the contrast to the surrounding area. But most of the time I would play it “safe”. After all, nature had already chosen the colors for me. ‘Life Goes On: Corregidor Island’ is an example of this approach.

Photo of Cin Corregidor on Corregidor Island, Philippines
Photo of Cin Corregidor, Philippines
(copyright permission obtained)
Art Quilt "Life Goes On: Corregidor Island"
Life Goes On: Corregidor Island
©Christine Hager-Braun, Fiber, 18 x 22 in, Private Collection

Once I created predominantly abstract landscapes, my color choices became less “accurate”. I wanted to maintain the overall association with the actual scene but took more liberties in my color choices. Rather than using “solid” batiks only, I started to incorporate more textured fabrics. Frequently, I also couched yarn on top of the quilted design to add even more interest. Slowly, but surely, I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. 

fiber art depicting a landscape with diagonal lines pf purple fabric in the foreground, green hills in the mid-ground and blue sky in the background
Lavender Fields #8, ©Christine Hager-Braun, Fiber, 36 x 48 in

In 2019, I decided to dig even deeper into topics around the gift of resilience, the power of a positive mindset, and the importance of mental health. As these themes are abstract, I started to express myself through abstract line art. The new direction was liberating as it felt limitless. This was true for the subject matter but also for the choices of colors.  I no longer had a template for colors to go by. I needed to trust my own understanding of color. But how did I come to this understanding?

Impermanence #2, ©Christine Hager-Braun, Fiber, 16 x16 x 1.75 in; you can read my thoughts on Impermanence in this blog post.

Over the years, as I was creating my own work, I also took the time to look at other artists’ work, no matter if it was representational or abstract, if it was a painting, haute couture, or a traditional quilt.

I tried – and still try – to understand what I connect with in the piece in front of me. What triggers my emotional response to this piece? Is it the subject matter, the texture, or the colors? Which colors or color combinations do I like and which ones do I not like? Which colors result in harmony and which colors elicit tension? (If you want to read my suggestions on how to Connect with Abstract Art, then check out this blog post)

With this awareness I then look at the color wheel. While there are various approaches to color theory, the color wheel is the most common one.

representation of the color wheel

The primary colors red, yellow and blue, are considered ‘pure’ colors as they cannot be created by mixing other colors. Secondary colors (orange, green, and purple) result from mixing adjacent primary colors. When mixing a primary color with a secondary color adjacent on the color wheel, then tertiary colors are created.

How are the colors, which I responded to in a painting, arranged on the color wheel? Is the artwork made up with the primary colors red, yellow and blue?
Are the colors grouped together as warm colors with shades from yellow through orange and red to reddish purple? Or are they cool colors such as green, blue, and blue-purple?
Are they situated on opposite sides of the color wheel forming complementary colors like red and green or blue and orange?

What information can we deduct from color theory?

The location of colors on the color wheel is a theoretical approach that helps us to understand the relationship between colors as colors usually exist in the context of other colors.
For example, colors which are located next to each other on the color wheel, are harmonious and establish a gentle balance in an art piece. In contrast, complementary colors, located on opposite sides of the color wheel, bring high energy to an image and create the most tension.
Warm colors appear closer to the viewer, while cool colors are perceived as receding.
Of course, there are many more nuances. If you are interested, please check out the multitude of articles and books available for you to dive deeper into the world of colors.

Eventually, connecting my emotional response to color with the intellectual explanation of color theory allowed me to understand my personal reaction. Over time, my appreciation for color combinations became less intellectual and my ability to choose colors spontaneously become stronger.
Now I can trust my intuition when selecting colors. I know which color combinations express energy or convey calmness, and how to establish harmony, add surprises, and even create tension.

Based on my experience I would recommend the following for you to gain more confidence in selecting colors:

  • Look at art and pay attention to the color palette and the value of colors
  • Observe your emotional response to the art piece as a whole and to the colors in particular
  • Put your emotions into words thereby becoming more aware of what you like and don’t like
  • Locate the colors on the color wheel
  • Read about color theory and learn to interpret the interaction of colors
  • Use color – often. You can sketch, draw, paint, make collages, color inside or outside the lines of adult coloring books, make a quilt, or even sort through your wardrobe. Keep in mind that you don’t need to finish every piece you start.
  • Initially, use the colors you enjoy most and feel comfortable with. Over time, include colors which challenge you and expand your comfort zone.
  • Practice! Not every piece you create will be a masterpiece, but that’s okay. We can learn so much from work that doesn’t turn out the way we had envisioned it. Even the greatest masters used their canvases again by painting over their “failures”.
  • Learn to trust your intuition. We are surrounded by color and our sense for color has developed since childhood. Hence, it is usually more sophisticated than we give it credit.
  • Don’t let anybody tell you that your favorite color combinations are not art-worthy. Like with anything, we have personal preferences, and this applies to color palettes, too. Ultimately, it is YOUR choice!

Have fun and let me know your favorite approaches to choosing colors!