Setting Colour Theory In Motion

Last year, Ruth from Rock+Purl very kindly gave me the opportunity to talk about colour on her blog. I told the story of developing cataracts, losing access to the world of colour, and then finally having the eye surgery and re-gaining that whole magical world. Recently, she invited me back to talk about colour again, but this time I wanted to help YOU unlock some of the magic.

I am reposting my entry here in all its glory… This all stemmed from a talk I did with Johanna Botari at the Kitchener-Waterloo Knitters’ Guild last autumn, and I owe thanks to Johanna for giving the talk with me, and to Angela Blackstone, the Guild’s programming coordinator, for asking us to speak! This isn’t a straight copy of that talk by any means, or even of my portion of the talk, but it’s a chance to share some of the cool resources I found while preparing for it.

A lot of people seize up when they read the word “theory” — music theory, scientific theory, and, yes, colour theory. I promise, though, colour theory is nothing to be scared of. I’m going to talk about three things: identifying individual colours, combining colours, and online tools that we knitters can use to play with colour ideas for our projects.

All of this makes for fun colour play at the computer screen, before you even get to the LYS or your stash. Not that I’d ever encourage anyone to get distracted at work, but this sort of thing can be an enjoyable (and educational) alternative to knitting during those moments when actual yarn and needles aren’t available!

Colour Dimensions

Colour has three basic dimensions: HUE, VALUE and SATURATION. Hue is where the colour falls on the colour wheel — the blueness or redness or yellowness of the colour. Value is how light or dark the colour is, or how much black or white is in it. Saturation is how intense the colour is, how vibrant or how grey it is.

A colour could have a red hue, a medium value, and a medium saturation. What might that look like? Here, let’s say it’s something like this:

colour theory samples

Yup, that’s a reddish colour, alright.

How about in yarn form?

colour theory examples 1

Three shades of yarn from the Zermatt Vest kit (Ravelry link), from the now-defunct Van Der Rock Yarns. The centre skeins are similar to that colour sample above. The skeins on the left are the same colour plus black; the skeins on the right are the same colour plus white (or, since we’re talking about dyed yarns, in this case it’s less of the reddish dye added to the whitish-coloured natural yarn) — yup, that means these are the same HUE, but different VALUES.

Let’s break that down a little. Many people have seen this sort of colour selection tool before, but let’s look at it in terms of those colour dimensions. The colour sample above is the box on the right; the little round selector in the big box shows where that particular colour falls on the scale of options. The rainbow bar (with the selector on red) is where you adjust the HUE. The upper left corner and bottom right corner of the big box are white and black, respectively, and the diagonal line between them represents the range of VALUE. The upper right corner and the bottom left corner are red (in this case) and black or grey, and the diagonal between them represents the SATURATION of the colour.

colour theory samples

How to “read” a colour selection tool

And, look! The colour selector even gives us specific measurements for each of those dimensions! Any colour can be identified by these measurements. Hue is measured in degrees (because that rainbow bar is really a representation of a colour wheel, which is a circle with — you guessed it — 360°). Saturation and value are both measured in percentages. So, when I said that this sample colour had a red hue, and medium saturation and value? The hue is right smack dab on primary red, and the value and saturation are hovering right around the 50% mark. Bingo!


The numbers actually make sense!

These colour samples were based on screenshots from (scroll down to the HTML Color Picker section). That site is designed to be a tool for graphic designers and web developers, but it’s a really useful tool for anyone who wants to get a handle on how the different dimensions change a colour. Go ahead — visit the site and click around to see how the colour changes when you alter one or more dimensions. (You can enter a number in the boxes for each dimension, or you can just click on the rainbow bar and the big box to play around.)

Combining Colours

Most of the colour theory that people pay attention to is about HUE, and how to combine the colours on the colour wheel. It’s important stuff!

Here’s your basic colour wheel (courtesy of The Artist’s Toolkit). Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colours; mix two of them together in equal portions and you get the secondary colours, orange, green, and purple. Mix a secondary colour with a primary colour, and you get the tertiary colours: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.

A standard colour wheel arrangement

If you start with, say, blue yarn, and you want to set up a colour scheme for a project, you’ve got a number of options. (I’ve gone stash-diving to find examples…)

colour theory examples 8

Blue yarns and knit swatches (mitered squares for a blanket I’m making)

The simplest option might be a monochromatic scheme: all blue yarn, but perhaps with variation of hue and saturation. This might not even require multiple yarns — a kettle-dyed tonal yarn like some of the ones above would achieve this effect all on its own.

To make that blue yarn pop, though, you might want to throw in a dash of its complement, the colour opposite it on the colour wheel. The complement of blue is orange. If you have equal parts blue and orange in your project, the contrast can be overwhelming, but blue with just the odd splash of orange can be really exciting.

colour theory examples 7

Blue plus orange = complementary — a really energetic colour scheme!

If that’s too harsh, though, you could try a triad: the blue, plus the colour on either side of its complement, orange. In other words, you could combine the blue with yellow-orange and red-orange, rather than straight-up orange. This is more subtle than the complementary scheme, but still lively. (I didn’t have enough variations on orange in my stash to get a good example image — sorry!)

If you want something softer, you could use an analogic or analogous scheme: the blue, plus the colour on either side of it. This could be blue plus blue-green and blue-purple, or you could spread the net a little wider and combine the blue with green and purple.

colour theory examples 5

Blue plus blue-purple and blue-green = a very subtle analogous colour scheme

colour theory examples 4

Blue plus green and purple (and all the shades in between) = a somewhat more lively version of an analogous colour scheme

If that’s too subtle, there’s another option, known as an accented analogous scheme. Here, you would use the colours of the analogous scheme I just described, but toss in a little bit of the original colour’s complement, orange. This gives you a range of soft variations, but with the odd hit of contrast for punctuation.

colour theory examples 3

Blue, plus purple and green and all the shades in between, plus a pop of orange = accented analogous colour scheme

If all of that turns your head just a little or raises your blood pressure, then by all means, forget the jargon: analogic, triadic, complementary or monochromatic, these schemes are all about the colour wheel and the relative positions of the colours on it. Never mind the terminology, just focus on the relationships between the colours.

One of my favourite ways of coming up with colour schemes is to play with a tool like this colour scheme designer.

colour scheme designer

A very spiffy colour scheme tool that takes the guesswork out of working with the colour wheel

Just select a scheme from the circles at the top (I’ve chosen accented analogic) and spin the selector dot around the circle to pick your colour (I’ve set it at blue). The other dots automatically show the other colours to include in your chosen scheme (here, they fall on blue-purple, blue-green, and orange). The rest of the page auto-populates with a variety of colour palettes based on this scheme. Note that if you click on “Adjust Scheme” at the bottom, you can adjust the value, saturation, and contrast of the colours in the palettes.

This particular tool is meant for web designers, but those palettes are equally useful for us knitters. Once you have a palette you like, you can take it to your LYS or your favourite online yarn source, and set about recreating it in fibre-y form.

One other favourite tool I want to show you is the Multicolr search engine.


The multicolr search engine showing a similar accented analogous colour scheme to the one we worked out earlier

This tool has you select up to five colours, and adjust the proportions of them using a slider. Then — and this is the genius part — it searches over 10 million indexed photos from Flickr, and displays a collage of photos that have your selected colour palette.

This is useful for us knitters on two levels. The individual images can be inspirational on their own. But even better is the overall effect of that jumble of colours in the entire collage. I use this to envision (albeit in a very rough way) how a variegated yarn with this particular balance of colours might look like, knit up. All of the ‘usual’ colour palette generators show you clean blocks of colour, which is useful if you’re making, say, a Stripe Study Shawl or a colour-block afghan. The real strength of the Multicolr search for knitters is that it shows a jumbly riot of colours, which more closely approximates the result of variegated yarns and/or colourwork.

wound versus knit

Koigu KPPPM wound in cakes, and knit up in yet another mitered square — this square includes both the yarn cake in the foreground, and the left-hand one in the background, blended together

I do love handpainted yarns, but sometimes it’s hard to visualize what something like this Koigu will knit up as, without some additional tools!

Online Resources

Note: These links are all current as of the time of this blog post — but, like all things on the internet, sites may shut down, move, or otherwise disappear. New tools will appear, too. At the very least, these tools will give you a sense of what can be done online with regard to colour planning and theory!

Resources on colour theory:

Colour scheme tools:

  • Color Codes — use this for identifying individual colours, and playing with hue, value, and saturation
  • Color Scheme Designer, Kuler, and ColorExplorer all let you play with the colour wheel to create palettes and schemes
  • Photocopa, Color Palette Generator, colrd, and other sites allow you to upload an image you love (a favourite nature photo or work of art, perhaps), and generate colour palettes based on that image
  • DesignSeeds is a very popular website full of palettes based on photos, which you can search based on theme or by individual colours
  • Multicolr Search by TinEye lets you search indexed Flickr images by colour — which is a fantastic way to look at how colour schemes can play out in images


I’m curious to know: what else would YOU like to know about colour theory? Are there other online tools that you find especially useful? What tips and tricks have you learned over the years to make working with colour fun instead of scary?

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