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You've seen those multi-color patterns. They're not written:

CO BLUE, work rib for 2 inches, switch to PINK

No, no, no, they're written:

CO MC, work rib for 2 inches, switch to CC1

The implication being that you can use any MC and CC1, 2, and 3 that you like. Those of you with an artistic bent or an adventurous spirit might happily grab colors off the shelf and start knitting away, but what if the colors don't go together? It's an awful lot of effort (and cost) to knit a whole sweater just to discover that the colors clash. So you have a choice: you could just stick with the colors in the picture -- after all, they don't look like the dog's breakfast -- or you could learn a thing or two about color theory.

Color is notoriously difficult to talk about. I once had a heated argument over whether to use royal blue or electric blue, and when I finally grabbed a magazine to show this person what royal blue looks like, he said "Yeah! That's electric blue!" So my telling you that royal blue looks lovely with daffodil yellow is useless.

We need better words, so allow me to introduce some technical terms.

Just like space has three dimensions, so does color. And just as a choreographer plays with the dimensions of space to create an interesting dance, a designer (that's you!) can play with the dimensions of color to come up with a pleasing combination.

The Dimensions of Color

The first dimension is Hue. This is the general color family, say, blue as opposed to red. All the hues are arranged in a nice rainbow around the typical artist's color wheel, and you can have a lot of fun with this wheel. There's the warm side, and the cool side, though I've heard plenty of debate over exactly where each side starts. (Is green warm or cool? What about purple? Maybe we should call them "tepid".) Hues that fall opposite each other on the wheel, such as blue and orange, are called "complementary" and they enhance each other while providing dramatic contrast. Hues that fall beside each other, such as orange and yellow, are called "analogous" and they appear to blend into each other. Theoretically, there are an infinite number of hues, as each hue blends into its neighbor.

But you wouldn't go to the hardware store and ask for blue paint. You might say "dark blue" or "intense blue" or you might even ask for "dark, intense blue". This is where the other two dimensions come in.

Value is the second dimension, and it refers to the lightness or darkness of a color, or how close the color is to pure white or pure black. Pastels are considered "high value " colors, because there's a lot of white in them. Colors you'd see in a hunting lodge -- all that burgundy and navy and forest green -- are called "low value" because they contain a fair amount of black.

If you were to play with some paints (and I highly encourage it -- there's no better way to learn about color), this is where you would add white or black to a hue and see what it did. It might not do what you expect! It's easy enough to think of a dark blue, but would you think that yellow + black = olive green? Grab your paints and find out.

A hue with white added to it is called a "tint". A hue with black added to it is called a "shade". (The next time someone refers to pale mint as "that particular shade of green", you can roll your eyes knowingly.)

The last dimension is Saturation, also known as Chroma. This is how intense the color is, whether it's closer to a fire engine or a filing cabinet. Fully saturated colors are pure, bright hues, like the ones you see on the color wheel. The least saturated colors are known as "achromatics", meaning without color. You'd probably call them greys. Colors with a medium saturation are somewhere in between. Get out your paints again, take a pure hue, and add grey. A hue plus grey is called a "tone". Another way to tone down or "desaturate" a color is to add its complement (red to green, purple to yellow). It's trippy, but it works.

A good way to judge the saturation of a color is to ask yourself "How bright is it?" or "How intense is it?" You probably find yourself drawn to a certain saturation level. If you're happiest in your bright fuchsia t-shirt, then you're someone who likes high saturation. But if your sister's bright fuchsia t-shirt gives you a headache, then you might want to stick with less saturated colors. Also, remember that a highly saturated color packs a lot of punch. A lipstick red really livens up a bunch of grays. You can mix a bright red with a bright blue and a bright green, but you'll be approaching the world of cartoons. A great place, if it's where you want to be.

Extra credit: You can have a relatively unsaturated color at any level on the value scale, but the most highly saturated color in each hue family lives at one point on the value scale, and it's not the same point for each hue. Sound complicated? Follow me, here. Take the color wheel, and squint at it (you may feel silly, but it's the best way to judge values without being too distracted by the hues.) If that doesn't work for you, photocopy it, to get a black and white version. Doesn't the pure yellow look fairly "light " and the pure purple fairly "dark "?

To recap, we've got three dimensions of color: hue (name of color), value (lightness or darkness) and saturation (brightness or grayness). I might have avoided that royal/electric blue argument if I'd said "Let's use a purply-blue of a high saturation and low value". Or I might have just gotten a blank stare.

Ok, so now it's time to mix these colors, and we're going to use the dimensions of color to explore possible combinations. To begin with, decide whether you want a subtle or exciting look.

Subtle Color Mixes

For the subtle color mixes, we're going to vary one dimension slightly while keeping the other two constant. Stay with me.

Hue. For our subtle hue mix, we're going to stick with hues that fall close to each other on the color wheel. So, pick your favorite hue (say, orange), and then move out to include some of its neighbors (red-orange, yellow-orange, and yellow). Because we're staying subtle here, you probably want to stick with a medium to low saturation. Value is whatever you like, but keep the same value in all your colors (all light, or all dark).

If you're liking the technical terms, this is called an "analogous color scheme".

Value. Ok, now we're going to stick with one hue and one saturation, and vary the value. Because we're keeping it subtle, you don't have to go to both extremes of the value scale. So, pick your hue (blue-green), pick a value you like (fairly light) and move outwards in smallish steps (really light, light, and medium-light).

The technical term for this is a "monochromatic color scheme".


Saturation. This is probably the trickiest to imagine. Like before, we're sticking with one hue and one value, and only varying the saturation. In this case, it's probably easier to start with the brightest color you want (say, a salmon pink, which is really a medium-high value orangish-red), and then go grayer.

This could also be called a "monochromatic color scheme", since it uses a single hue.


Exciting Color Schemes

For the exciting schemes, we're going to stretch each scale, and even vary two dimensions at a time. Always keep one dimension constant, though, or you're back to chaos.

Hue. Now, the sky's the limit. Use any combination of hues you like. If you still want some direction, try using two pairs of complements. Remember, you find complements by drawing a line directly across the color wheel. So, say, start with blue, and find its complement, orange. Then move from blue next door to purple, and find its complement, yellow. Or pick a completely different pair: red and green!

If this is a little too wild for you, then stick to one side of the color wheel, but to keep it exciting, go for a wider range than our subtle analogous color scheme. An exciting warm color scheme could include pink, orange, yellow, and a yellowy-green.

Given the variety of hues available, you might want to stick with the same saturation and value, but feel free to vary one if you're feeling bold.

Value. Pick any hue you like, and go from the top of the value scale to the bottom, almost-white to nearly-black. Or pick three notes on a value scale, then throw in another hue for good measure (which is what we do under saturation).





Saturation. The widest possible range of saturation is from fully-saturated color to a color-that-isn't-a-color: an achromatic, or gray. Fortunately, the combination of grays with bursts of vivid color is spectacular. Note that the three grays constitute a value scale, while the red and the medium gray are two ends of a saturation scale.



Advancing and Receding Colors

I hope that wasn't too much you to process, because there's more! As you start fiddling with color combinations, you'll notice that some color seem to pop out at you, while others recede into the background. Advancing colors, the ones that pop, tend to be warm (hue), light (value), and intense (saturation). Receding colors tend to be cool (hue), dark (value), and neutral (saturation).

If you're canny, you can use this phenomenon to enhance your pattern. How? If you knit yellow and orange pansies on a dark purple background, the pansies are going to pop. But if you knit navy polkadots on a bright salmon background, the dots will recede, and the overall effect will be to dim the salmon.



Inspiration Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

It's delightful to study art history along with color theory. Color theorists are constantly setting up rules. The artists, on the other hand, absorb the color theory of their day, and then turn around and break every rule, to spectacular effect.

If you don't want to pull out a color wheel and try to wade through my suggestions, just look around you. Paintings, greeting cards, china patterns, a collection of pens in a jar, your child's finger-painting -- anything can be an inspiration for a color palette. And so what if it doesn't follow a single suggestion that I've posited? Does it look nice to you? Does it make you happy? Then knit it!

Tips on Shopping for Color

There's really only one important tip: If you're shopping for color, make sure you can see the color. I'll spare you the technical details, but let me just tell you that color isn't even in the eye of the beholder -- it's in the mind. If it's your sweater, the colors have to look right to you. So that means:

  • Be careful when buying yarn online. With all the variations of digital camera settings and monitor settings, the only thing you can be fairly sure of is that the color you're seeing is not the color of the yarn. If you want to buy online, request or buy a sample card first.
  • When you go to the store, take your basket to the window, and look at the yarn under daylight. Fluorescents do wacky things to colors.

And what if you go to the store with your brilliant color scheme, and they don't have your colors? Well¸you can dye just about any color you can imagine, using a combination of cyan, magenta and yellow. But that's another article.

Note: The fair isle patterns used in this article are variations on a pattern originally found in The Encyclopedia of Knitting by Lesley Stanfield & Melody Griffiths; Running Press © 2000.



Suzyn Jackson can knit and read at the same time, which comes in handy.

She also writes from time to time. Her article "Knit-Surfing the Subway" has just been published in "For the Love of Knitting" from Voyageur Press [reviewed in this issue of Knitty].