Wednesday, April 19, 2017

300+ Years of Color Theory: Principles of Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.

Principles of Color, originally published in 1969 is an elementary book about color. The publisher writes in the Introduction that they hope (and even expect) this book to become fundamental for teaching artists and designers about color.

This book does include a very nice synopsis on the history of color circles beginning with SirIsaac Newton in 1666 and progressing through Wilhelm Ostwald in 1916. Included is also a basic description of the subtractive, additive, and psychological (opponent theory) color systems.

In the chapter dedicated to the Harmony of Colors, Birren gives a synopsis of harmonies presented by M. E. Cheverul in his 1839 book, The Principles of Harmony and Color Contrasts. These are basic harmonies in a color wheel; analogous, complementary, split complementary, and various triads.

Birren uses the Ostwald system to base his simplified version which he calls the Color Triangle.


He explains many principles of color harmony using his Color Triangle, which are all taken directly from Ostwald’s color solid. These include making straight lines across any given Color Triangle to find naturally harmonious combinations. I think Birren created his Color Triangle as a simplified way to present theories of Ostwald, but I personally think in this case it’s better to just go to the source and learn how to use Ostwald’s system. The basic principles are the same, but there is infinitely more variety by using the Ostwald system, and the ability to see even more interesting color combinations.

In the last section of the book, Birren describes how to use color to create different “effects” and includes detailed color illustrations.

As a student of the fine arts, we learned about light effects by completing multiple exercises to train our powers of perception and draw (or paint, or sketch, etc.) the subjects we were studying. The two main color theory books I read at the time also included many concrete assignments, exercises and experiments to help the student learn and discover how to use color in art and design (Josef AlbersInteraction of Color and Johannes Itten The Art of Color).

It seems strange to me that Birren gives such a formulaic approach on how to attain effects such as luster, iridescence and transparency with color. In fact, it seems strange to author a book meant to be the foremost introductory and fundamental book on color for artists and designers and not to include any hands-on assignments or experiments to help the student learn how to use these principles to the fullest.

I’m also surprised that we didn’t use this book when I was studying the fine arts, as the original publication date of 1969 is right in line with Itten and Albers books published in 1961 and 1963 respectively. But here it is 20+ years after graduating with my BFA and I’m just reading this book for the first time!

The strength of Birren’s Principles of Color is the concise history of the color wheel and thorough, condensed explanation of Chevreul’s historic harmonies of color. My personal feeling is the lack of practical experience through exercises for students to follow and really learn the principles of color is the downfall of this book. It’s what makes Itten and Albers books ultimately superior—although they are not as thorough on the history of the color wheel, they both give students the tools needed to really discover and understand the principles of color.


There are copies of Principles of Color still floating around out there (some still in libraries) and if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the color wheel it’s a must read.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

300+ Years of Color Theory: Interaction of Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.


Interaction of Color is probably one of the best known and most loved book about color theory, first published in 1963 and still in print today. Artist and educator Josef Albers taught at the infamous Bauhaus until the school closed in 1933. He then immigrated to the United States to teach at Black Mountain College. Albers left Black Mountain College in 1949 to serve as the chairman of the Design Department at Yale University, where he began work on the Homage to the Square series.

The concepts presented in this book are not new, revolutionary, or groundbreaking; they are the very same concepts and theories published by Chevreul 100 years earlier. What is revolutionary about Albers approach to explaining the contrast of colors is his method, which you might say was "backwards" from the standard approach.

Most color theory books pre-dating Albers seem to follow the same formula, presenting scientific research, theories, and color systems before attempting to let the reader in on color contrasts and harmonies. It’s as if you must first understand the physiology of human vision and the physics of light before you can understand how colors contrast or harmonize together.

Albers approach is totally different. He understands that just as you don’t need to know exactly how the human ear or soundwaves work to listen to music (or form musical likes and dislikes), you also don’t need to know exactly how the human eye or light works to see or appreciate colors.


Students are presented with color riddles and experiments to complete in the classroom using colored papers. For example, is it possible to make one color look like two different colors?


Can this be accomplished using various colored papers in more ways than one?


What did you discover from this exercise?

Only after completing these kinds of assignments based solely on perception does Albers introduce the science and theory behind the interaction of colors. His book is a synopsis of these practical exercises and theories presented in his classes.

If you are interested in color and don't already own this book, it's a must-read! I also recommend the Josef Albers Interaction of Color app from Yale University - it's free through iTunes and leads you through several of Albers' exercises in a very creative and entertaining way.

Albers work was a huge influence on many American abstract artists like Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. You can still see the influence of Albers work on contemporary modern quilters like Heather Jones, Jacquie Gering, Callie Works-Leary, and Eliza Kenan & Claire Oswalt. I'd say you can even see the influence of Albers in the recent works of artist LUKE Haynes in his series Log Cabins of Donald Judd. A very amazing legacy for a book half a century old!

If you sew or quilt, you can play around with some of Albers exercises using fabrics in my Contrasting Colors Patchwork Blocks post at BERNINA's WeAllSew blog.


And if you do make a bunch of contrasting color patchwork blocks, when you're finished playing around with your blocks follow this tutorial to turn them into a little square zip pouch!



Up next in the big Color Theory reading list is yet another book by our proliferous friend Faber Birren, Principles of Color. I don't know for sure how many books Birren published about color, but it's got to be over 30, the man was OBSESSED!

Until next time, keep your eyes open to the colors all around you!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Zipper Pouch Features Contrasting Colors


After playing around with contrasting fabric colors by making some contrasting color blocks, I started sewing them into these handy zipper pouches.


They finish at 6" x 6" square with a zipper closure, a small pocket inside, and a D ring to hold a pair of snips on a ribbon.


I love them! Find the Color Block Zipper Pouch tutorial posted at the BERNINA WeAllSew blog, and let me know if you stitch any up!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Make Your Own Color Wheel Pincushion


Good news, everyone! As part of my Color Wheel Series for the BERNINA WeAllSew Blog, I've designed this fun little paper pieced color wheel pincushion for you! Click over to WeAllSew to find the free pattern and tutorial. You can use the colors from your favorite color wheel, or you can create a new color wheel with your favorite hues. If you're already a paper piecing pro, you can probably whip one of these up in less than an hour. I made three in one evening!

Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as well. In the Color Wheel Basics post you can learn what a color wheel is and get a free downloadable set of Color Cards to learn basic color theory terms.

In the Color Harmony Basics post you can learn about color combinations on a color wheel and get a free downloadable set of Color Cards to remember 10 common color harmonies.


Thanks for visiting me at Miss Sews-it-all! Please let me know if you make one of the pincushions, and definitely share a pic or two—I would love to see your version of the color wheel.

Friday, February 17, 2017

How to Use Color Theory in Quilting

I am over the top excited this morning to announce a new series of posts about color theory for quilters (and sewists, too) that I've put together for BERNINA's blog, WeAllSew.


Pop over to the first post at WeAllSew, Color Wheel Basics to learn a bit about what a color wheel is and where they came from.


As a bonus, BERNINA has put together a set of free printable Color Wheel cards to download, cut out and use for reference! Scroll to the bottom of the post to find the download and instructions for putting the cards together.


The second post, Color Harmony Basics will show you exactly how to use any color wheel to find harmonious color combinations. Using a color wheel to find color harmonies is a GREAT way to look for new color combinations or coordinating colors for quilts and sewing projects. Find free printable cards with this post showing 10 of the most basic ways to combine colors on any color wheel.


You can use these Color Harmony cards to play around with colored fabrics to find combinations you like (and even make note of those that you really don't like) for future reference.


Visit this post about Simultaneous Contrast to learn how colors can play tricks with each other, and play tricks with your color perception. 

I hope you enjoy the series, and even feel confident enough to give color theory a try in your next quilt or colorful sewing project. I'd love to hear from you if you do!

Keep looking at the colors all around you!

-Erika