Working with Tones in Fabric, Paint, or Other Medium (Playing with Color Series by Joen Wolfrom)Joen Wolfrom | March 30, 2012
In the last post we discussed the fourth color scale—the tone scale. Since toned colors are the most prevalent in the world, it’s worthwhile thinking about how we can work most effectively with them. Tones are the workhorses of color. They are the hues that hold most designs together. Pure colors get most of the attention and receive most of the accolades and rave reviews. However, it’s the tones that work the hardest and bring support to those pure colors . Learning how to use tones to the best advantage of your design is really an exciting adventure. Let’s begin with some basic tone concepts in this post.
First, let’s look at the sunset image (above). Except for a tiny bit of pure yellow in the sky, all of the hues in this image are toned (grayed), including most of the yellow hues. We can see the grayness very readily in the mountains and sky, as these colors are softly muted. Some even appear filmy or veiled. The foreground hills are also toned. Because of their limited amount of grayness and the fact that their color value is quite dark, the hills are very pronounced. Most of the yellows in the sky are only slightly toned, so they also attract our attention with their brightness and glowing warmth. Altogether, this image illustrates some of the following principles when working with tones:
- Colors can exhibit a wide range of tonality: some colors are slightly grayed; others mildly grayed; and others are extremely grayed.
- When all of the colors within an artwork or scene have the same degree of grayness and are in the same relative value, the design can be difficult to see. It can also appear flat and/or uninteresting.
- A color’s value (lightness or darkness) has no bearing on the amount of grayness in a color.
- Tones and values, working together, can form a team to create amazing results in all designs.
- Colors of all value ranges can be toned.
- As a rule, the more a color is toned, the more it fades into the distance. This is accentuated when the colors become both lighter and grayer.
In the image below, the grayness throughout the scene is almost equally distributed. Everything looks evenly filmy or veiled. Also notice there is very little value change. The closest hills are slightly darker, but their color value doesn’t provide enough contrast to make this image understandable. This image illustrates an important concept:
- When value and tonality are the same throughout, it is difficult to understand or interpret the design (or scene).
- .Varying the tonality of colors within an artwork, as well as having some value contrast, makes for a more successful visual statement.
Now let’s look at tones and how they work within the realm of fabric:
LARISA KEY’S TONED QUILTS
My favorite traditional quilt designer is Larisa Key, owner of the quilt store Quilter’s Dream in Willimantic, Connecticut. She is young (it’s relative), smart, innovative, and creative. I love her quilts. Happily, she is one of our JWD quilt designers. Most of her quilts are filled with toned fabrics, so they are perfect examples for us to use to discuss tones in fabric—-the pros, cons, and idiosyncrasies of tones within a design.
Bear Tracks in the Garden by Larisa Key
Bear Tracks in the Garden is one of those elegant quilts that exudes quiet beauty. It is one of my favorite traditional quilt designs. (Besides being beautiful, I love the idea of having no matching points between blocks. Such an innovation!—Thank you, Larisa!).
Larisa had several ways she could color this quilt with regard to her selection of tone fabrics. You, too, will have similar choices, no matter what your design is. When you begin cutting fabric, do some creative play with your design:
- First decide how you want your design to play. Look to see how many layers or planes are possible within your block. Then decide how many layers you want to employ for your design. (You don’t have to use every layer; make your own design interpretations.)
- Once these decisions are made, begin assigning fabrics to the shapes or planes that would be their most appropriate placement. Fabric assignment depends on how you decide to interpret your design. There’s almost always more than one way to create your design. Have fun figuring out the different options. Choose the one that you most enjoy or the one that bests suits the fabrics you have selected for this project.
Let’s look at some of Larisa’s fabrics in the details below:
1. Notice all fabrics are toned. The clearest one is the blue-green fabric placed in the small squares. It is the darkest fabric in value and and has the least amount of grayness. So, of all the selected fabrics, this will be one of the two that will first attract our attention.
2. The coppery fabric, being a warm hue will a minimal amount of grayness, is also an attention-getter. If it were more toned, it would not have the same visual attraction. Larisa placed this fabric in the center of each lattice intersection.
3. Larisa chose to have the two clearest colors in her quilt well corralled in small defined spaces. This choice allows her not to have to concern herself about having either of these two fabrics become out-of-control in their attention-getting ability. She uses them to create contrast that works well with her design and with the other fabrics.
4. The fabric used in the four small squares lying between the blue-green lattice and the bear tracks is light in value and very toned (grayed). By placing this very soft, understated fabric here, the lattice and bear tracks appear to be above it—on two different planes. Hence the lattice, being the least toned of these three sections, appears visually on top of both the light squares and the bear tracks. The tracks appear slightly lower (farther away) than the lattice, because a variety of these fabrics are more toned than the lattice fabric. Visually, the tracks are closer visually than the softly-colored toned squares.
5. The result of using fabrics within a quilt with a variety of grayness allows a sense of visual dimensionality to appear in your design. The design doesn’t look flat. It allows us to better see the design.
6. Value plays a significant when layering your design into different planes. Colors that are very grayed and light in value will always look farther in the distance than fabrics that are minimally gray and of medium or dark value. You can see this concept well utilized in this quilt. Larisa could have rearranged her fabrics, so the tracks were the lightest and grayest. If she would have done so, the quilt’s design would appear quite different than it is. Often there are several ways to interpret a design. Select one that suits your fancy and provides the best use of your fabrics.
It was important for Larisa not to use fabrics with the same amount of grayness or the same value throughout the design. If she had done this, the design would look flat. It would also be difficult to discern. By using fabrics with differing amounts of grayness, as well as changes in value, Larisa has created a beautiful design filled with interest. Try to do the same with your own quilts.
- The elements or shapes that you want to stand out most in your quilt should have the least amount of grayness in them. They should be more clear of gray than your other fabrics.
- If you want to add extra punch to a featured shape, besides using a less grayed fabric, consider using a fabric that is darker in value too.
- The elements or shapes you want to fall back into the distance should have the most grayness in them. Besides using fabrics with more grayness, if you lighten the values, this will enhance the falling-back effect.
- If you are working with paint, make certain there are differences in grayness between elements that you want to appear in different planes. If you want items to appear closely related or close in placement, the value and tonality can be quite similar. However, if you want to show contrast or provide a greater sense of dimensionality, add more grayness to your coloring (add a bit of lightness too). The one notable exception is when you are creating a design that appears in darkness. Then none of this takes place.
New Beginnings by Larisa Key
New Beginnings is a modern-day traditional quilt with a beautiful selection of tones incorporated. To look more closely at the fabrics Larisa selected, let’s look at a couple of close-up images.
The fabric that has the least amount of toneness (grayness) is the dark olive. Because of its richness, this fabric gives the umph to the design. It adds visual strength with its dark value and clarity of color. If you look at the two rose fabrics (rectangular shapes in the left block and the right block), you will see that the rose fabric on the right is more pronounced than the one on the left. This is because the one on the left is lighter in value and grayer in its coloring (more toned). Consequently, it appears to be visually farther from us in distance than the rose fabric on the right. Also notice the soft golden fabric on the left falls back into the distance too while the stronger gold fabric on the right feels slightly closer to us. Again, the gold on the left is lighter in value and grayer in coloring.
When you look at the quilt as a whole, you see that the dark olive green gives the visual punch to the quilt. Slightly lighter olive greens help support and reiterate the coloring. The block with the strongest rose-colored fabric is placed in the vertical center row of the quilt while the blocks with the softer rose fabric lie on the outer edges. Larisa could rearrange her fabrics in innumerable ways. All would create different variations to the design. There is no right way to go; there are just lots of options. Again, the choice is the designer’s.
Selecting Fabrics for Your Quilt’s Design
1. When you select fabrics for your quilts, make certain the most eye-catching fabric you have chosen is given a position in your quilt that works with your vision. For instance, you can keep your most prominent, brilliant fabrics under control by using them in small bits and/or using them in designated places or you can make them the focus of your quilt. If the latter, you will make certain they are placed in shapes and areas that will emphasize their boldness or brilliance.
2. Assess how you want to work throughout your quilt’s design. After figuring out what fabric(s) will be positioned as your most featured or your uppermost plane, select fabrics for your second most important position—usually your second plane.
3. Also select the shapes or areas that you do not want to emphasize—those that take on merely a supportive role. They may be placed on a third or fourth plane, depending on your design.
4. Choose the shapes or area that will provide your design’s background or backdrop.
5. By using a variety of tones and placing them to good advantage, you will create interest, focus, and dimensionality in your quilts. How exciting!
Tones are Important in All Design
Although I have been showing variations of tonality with fabric, the same principles apply in paint, dyes, interior design, graphic design, etc. As a final look into tones today, observe the sunrise image at the bottom of the page. You can see that all colors are grayed. Look at the subtle variations in the amount grayness in the blue water. In the sky, the softly colored toned apricots and blues provide a perfect backdrop for this water scene.
Observe how the variation of grayness in the distant land (right side) gives visual clues to our brains. Where the land appears less grayed, its clarity makes it appear as if it’s almost closer than where the grayness is most intense. When painting, it is so important to provide differences in the amount of grayness (and also value) from one element to another. The differences can be ever so subtle in some areas while very pronounced in others. The amount of grayness applied in one area or another depends on what you are trying to create and how you want the viewer to interpret your design.
Acclimating Your Eyes to Tones
Looking at scenic photos is a really good way to help your eyes and mind see how tones work in a design. If you are having difficulty visualizing tones, take time to look at some beautiful scenic pictures. In each, observe what colors have the least amount of grayness in them and see how this color clarity brings focus to the scene. Then observe what next attracts your eyes. Is it something that is slightly grayer than the main focus? Determine how it is different from the clearest of all objects in the picture. What doesn’t attract your attention? Why is that? Is it because it appears less interesting and/or is it because it is so grayed and therefore, non-eye-catching? Take the time to figure out how tones are distributed throughout different scenic images and artwork. See how nature works. Try to get a sense of how the amount of grayness in a color can create different effects and different levels of interest.
Since tones are the workhorses of color, it behooves us to become well aware of how they work—and how they don’t work. They are such a big part of a design’s success that we’ll continue this conversation into future posts. If you have questions, feel free to send them my way.
Text, illustrations, and photography copyright © Joen Wolfrom The copyright of each artwork shown remains with its creator.
Joen is a color enthusiast who teaches and lectures on color. She has written three color books: Color Play, Visual Coloring, and The Magical Effects of Color. Her Studio Color Wheel is used to illustrate color concepts in many of these blog posts. She is also the designer of the 3-in-1 Color Tool. Her new book Adventures in Designis now available. Joen’s newest design tool, the Magic Design-Ratio Tool is also available. All books and products are published by C & T Publishing.