Let Tones Work for You (Playing with Color Series by Joen Wolfrom)Joen Wolfrom | April 24, 2012
The tone scale is the most used group of colors in the world. Regardless, letting tones work their magic in a design can be puzzling, particularly if you are not aware of how they can help develop a design. Once you know their secret, you can let tones work for you in all sorts of ways. In today’s post let’s analyze tones by looking at two very different images. Both are entirely colored by tones. As we already know, tones are the hues of winter, calmness, and softness. In addition, you will be able to enhance your designs in so many ways when you know how tones interact both with each other and with hues from other color scales, .
The Most Important Qualities of a Tone
In a nutshell, tones can be of any value. They can range from almost white to almost black and every value in between. Also, tones are renowned for varying the amount of grayness in their colorings. Some tones have only a hint of grayness, like the dahlia shown above. Other tones may be slightly grayed or well grayed. There are also tones that have so much grayness in their makeup that they appear gray with a hint of color. Colors such as grayed blue or blued gray are examples of two toned colors with subtle difference in their appearances.
The image below illustrates the interaction of tones within a design. Every color in this image is toned. For instance, the mountain’s blue is grayed. Likewise, the light apricots and blues of the sky are very grayed. The dark green Douglas Fir trees are grayed; all of the water hues are very grayed. The green meadow grasses are the least grayed of all. Consequently, they attract our attention.
All colors in this image are from the tone scale.
Looking at Tones in Play
At first glance of the picture above, we might think the greens of the meadowland are not toned, but simply a dark green. However, if you put a pure green hue next to the grasses, you will see immediately that this dark green is toned. Because it is the element that has the least amount of grayness to it, the grass stands out more than any other feature. The darkest elements and those that have the least amount of toning are the ones that capture the attention of our eyes. Conversely, the sky is made up of very light grayed-blue hues. Because of their lightness and extreme grayness, these colors recede into the distance rather than attract our attention.
The differences in each color’s grayness help create the essence of a design. By making tonal changes in one element or another, you can change the focus or the feeling of a design.
Using Tones to Work Wonders
Our eyes naturally want to go to the center of a design. Because of the meadowland’s bright green coloring, our eyes shift from the center of this image to the bright green grasses. If I were creating this scene in paint or fabric, I might make some alterations, so that the meadow is not so pronounce, allowing the mountain to be the focus without distraction. I might consider doing one or more of the following:
- If I wanted to keep the viewers’ eyes resting in the mountain area, I would tone down the grasses by using a lighter, grayer green.
- I might lessen the amount of grayness in the mountain’s coloring. By slightly increasing the intensity of the blue, it will cause our eyes to focus more on the mountain.
- If I increase the intensity of the apricot cloud and accentuate the apricot glow that rims the mountain range, the central focus area will be stronger. To do this, I would select apricot hues that were less grayed and a tad bit darker than the current ones.
- I might make the sky a bit more pronounced by using clearer colors (less grayed) with a bit more darkness to them.
- If I wanted to feature both the mountain and the sky, I would play with the colors in the sky, making them more pronounced and interesting. If I used really intense apricot and blue hues in the sky, I can even make the sky the dominant feature with the mountain playing a secondary role.
- By changing any element’s degree of grayness, I can make this image’s focus different from how it now appears in its raw coloring.
Letting Those Tones Work Their Magic
By increasing the grayness of a color, we lessen its prominence. Therefore, if an element is taking on a larger visual role than you want it to in your design, change the color to one that is more grayed. (You might also need to alter the value.) If your featured element is not prominent enough, then use a color that has less grayness to it. Make it more pure. (Again, you may also need to change the value.)
Assessing Your Design’s Toned Interaction
If the featured item in your design is being usurped by another element, it almost always is because the featured element is more grayed and lighter in value than the other element. Also, if the usurping element has strong attracting details, this will cause your eyes to move away from the focus and to this more detailed element.
Whenever you work with a design, you are juggling the interactions between colors of differing amounts of grayness. The other major consideration is the value of these elements. This interplay between colors creates an interesting challenge in any medium, particularly in fabric. It forces you to think about how you want the viewer to interpret your design.
Let Tones Work for Your Quilts
I absolutely love Larisa Key’s In a Pickle quilt, which is a wonderful example of a modern-day traditional quilt. Her fabric selection is stunning. She has used a wide range of textural fabrics, including batiks, tone-on-tones, and fun mushy-designed fabrics. Regardless of their types, all fabrics are from the tone scale. At first glance we can see the variations in lightness and darkness between the fabrics. There are also subtle differences between the amount of grayness within the different fabrics. This play of tonality and value gives this quilt its richness. Let’s take a closer view at some of Larisa’s fabric choices (below)
In a Pickle by Larisa Key
All fabrics are toned in this quilt.
In the flying-geese section of the design (center triangles in the pathways, below) you can see that the triangles range in value between medium and fairly dark. In other words, they all have good visual strength. None is too light, thereby feeling out of place. Your eyes may fall on the bright rust triangle first. Next your eyes may focus on bits of aqua in the bottom left rectangle, the squiggly chartreuse on brown fabric, chartreuse center rectangle, or you might be attracted to the bright blue-violet in the upper right edge. These fabrics all have less gray in their makeup than their counterparts. Hence, they attract our attention first. The more pure a color is, the more our eyes gravitate towards it. Therefore, if you place a fabric with less gray amongst a grouping of toned fabrics, that fabric will be an attraction. Also, if two colors have the same amount of grayness, but one is a warmer color (closer to yellow on the color wheel), it will catch your attention first.
Not All Colors Should Be Attention-Getters
Notice the flying-geese triangles that are most grayed in coloring do not attract our attention. They are important placeholders in the design. You don’t want all of your colors to be attention-getters. If they are, our eyes do not know where to focus. Conversely, if all of your fabrics have the same degree of grayness and value, then there will be nothing that attracts our attention. Again, we won’t know where to look. Select one or more eye-catchers; then select a few more that are slightly less eye-catching. Then let the remaining fabrics play a supportive role, allowing the attention-getters to visually excel. The selection of eye-catching fabrics is relative. Generally, the fabric with the least amount of gray in its makeup will be your eye-catcher. The more grayness a fabric has in its makeup, the less it wants to come forward. The more pure your fabric selection, the more “wow” factor it will have. If you don’t want any one fabric to stand out too strongly, do subtle differences as Larisa has done in In a Pickle.
Subtle tonality differences not only create interest, but they add richness. Often the colors appear to vibrate off of one another because of their tonal differences. It looks like the light is hitting them differently. In Larisa’s upper-right flying-geese pathway (above image), there are three very dark fabrics with only a slight grayness in their makeup. These fabrics help to create a beautiful visual vibration within the quilt as they visually interact with the grayer hues. Having a wide variety of fabrics with varying degrees of grayness allows for the colors to appear to move—or vibrate. They are not visually flat.
In this detail below, the brightest fabrics—those with the least amount of grayness to them—attract our attention first. You can see how they help our eyes move throughout the design surface.
Larisa has used fabrics that are both extremely toned and very light in value for her background hues. Light hues that are toned tend to recede into the distance. If one of the background fabrics was light and more pure in coloring, it would pop forward visually. Likewise, a background fabric that was just as gray as the ones Larisa used, but much darker, would come forward visually. Thus, it’s important to consider both the amount of visual grayness in a fabric along with its value when selecting fabrics for a particular part of a design.
Tones and Painting
You’ll find the same effects in your painted artwork. The clearer the color is, the more it advances toward the viewer. The more it is toned, the more it lies back. If you want to have the most beautiful toned hues in your work, create your color’s toneness by mixing the hue with its complement. You can also gray a color by adding a neutral gray hue to it or by combining it with black and white. These are not as beautiful as using a color’s complement (pure hue, a tint, or a shade).
Using Tones in Interior Spaces
Most living and work spaces are colored in tones, since tones are more calming and restful. The “pop” in a room’s design is often done in pure colors or hues that are only slightly grayed. Accents are often done in bright, clear colors. In a room, there should be a variety of tonal differences, as well as value changes to add interest and richness.
An Important Note to You
I am finding my schedule extremely complicated. It is difficult for me to write a weekly color-blog post, particularly with my travel schedule. I will be changing the schedule of my Playing with Color series to twice-monthly. I think that will work better for me. I hope this change works for your schedule too. There’s so much to cover…..but so little time within a week. Happy coloring!
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.