Choosing colours with confidence – Part 1

If I had a dollar for every time a student said to me “I’m no good with colour”, I would be a rich woman! Well, I am here to tell you that I was that person too – perhaps as little as five years ago. And yet one of the most common compliments I receive about my embroidery designs now is “I love the colours you have used “. In just the same way as you learned to ride a bike or cook a cake, you can learn to make your own beautiful colour choices. It just takes PRACTICE. And I PROMISE you, that if I can do it (a former colour-choice phobic and card-carrying member of the “I am not creative” society ), then you can too!

Over the next few posts we are going to look at the easy techniques I use when developing colour palettes for my embroidery designs. These will be practical approaches and, with apologies to the colour purists amongst you, there will not be a colour wheel in sight. I want you to learn to TRUST your own unique colour style and then make choices that will make your embroidery projects SING. Once you are choosing colours with a spring in your step, you can delve into the amazing world of colour theory. But let’s start with building your confidence first :)

A number of years ago we wanted to replace the rug in our living room. The old rug was predominantly red in a typical Persian-style. It toned very nicely with our red armchairs, chocolate brown sofa and warm reddish-brown bamboo floors. So, we headed off to the local rug shop with my daughter, Samantha, in tow. As we browsed through the store, my husband and I were drawn to red rugs much like the one we had already – safe, conservative choices.

Samantha’s preferences were completely different. I want you to imagine a small, blond-haired girl at the ripe old age of 7, ADAMANT that we needed to purchase a predominantly green rug highlighted by an abtsract cream design. I watched her walk around the shop, instinctively saying “no”, “yuck”, and “boring” to our choices, and yet as soon as she saw the green rug she was absolutely convinced that it was “perfect”. Initially I worked at negotiating with her to  bring her around to our point of view, but I pretty soon saw that she was not to be moved. And I got to thinking, “Maybe she’s right. Maybe we can try something completely different.” The shop assistant said it would be fine to take the green rug home and try it out, and if it didn’t work then we could always exchange it for one of the red rugs. So with much reluctance, my husband agreed and the green rug came home.

AND IT WAS ABSOLUTELY PERFECT!

Samantha's green rug completely changed the look of our living room.

Samantha’s green rug completely changed the look of our living room.

The new rug made the room sing. It was interesting, and fun, and colourful. And coolest of all, Samantha had left an indelible imprint on the fabric of our everyday life.

I learnt two wonderful lessons that day. First, don’t be afraid of colour. Play with it, experiment, explore and try things. What’s the worst that can happen? You decide it doesn’t work and you try something else. Samantha wasn’t in the least afraid of her bold colour choice – in fact she was utterly convinced that it was right! Second, we could have ignored Samantha’s preference and in the process perhaps have dented her colour confidence. How awful to have been the person who caused her to question what felt instinctively right rather than giving her the confidence to stand by her choices. Instead, the rug story has become an intrinsic part of our family legend, and every time it is related Samantha stands just a little taller (in fact she was thrilled when I asked if I could share it here!).

If you lack colour confidence now, then I can almost guarantee that somewhere along the line you were made to feel as though you weren’t “doing it right”. Perhaps you were told that certain colours should never be seen together, or that only creative artistic types are “good at colour”. Or perhaps you habitually compare yourself to others and your inner critic immediately pipes up with, “she’s doing it much better than I ever could”. When you were four or five years old you almost certainly made colour choices with cheerful abandon. I doubt very much that you worried that you “weren’t good at colour” as you sat busily colouring a fairy or an elephant. With all that said, I bet you still have colour favourites too – colours that you love and perhaps even colours that you hate. This is really important, because as you build colour confidence you are going to learn to trust your own colour STYLE.

So let’s begin by regaining that sense of fun that you had a when choosing colours as a child.

INTRODUCING MY SECRET WEAPON – VARIEGATED THREAD!

Variegated threads - a cornucopia of colour!

Variegated threads – a cornucopia of colour!

“What?”, I hear you say. Fear not – here is how it works.

When I first discovered variegated threads I was like a kid in a lolly shop. I loved them all! I loved browsing a rack where a skein of regal purples, reds and greens hung next to a skein of warm, autumnal tones; mixed pinks and yellows jostled blues and greens straight from the ocean on a sunny day. My wallet suffered accordingly as I bought skein after skein of mixed colours, but what an amazing resource they turned out to be. You see, each variegated skein is a colour palette just waiting to be discovered. And you don’t have to worry about what colours go together – just take a single variegated skein and start working with it.

– HERE’S HOW I DO IT –

1) Choose a variegated thread with at least three distinct colours. This thread needs to make your heart sing – it needs to be one that you just want to start stitching because you love the colours so much. Here is one of my absolute favourites – Stef Francis Filament Silk 1-49. Filament silk takes the dye beautifully so the colours have a richness and a lustre which I love.

Stef Francis Filament Silk 1-49. Just look at all those luscious colours :)

Stef Francis Filament Silk 1-49. Just look at all those luscious colours :)

2) Start using your variegated thread as the basis for selecting a colour palette. If you look closely at the photo above you will see a rich pink, a delicate orange, a really warm yellow (not at all brash), mint green, a touch of teal blue and a lovely purple. Where these colours bleed into each other you get further colour subtleties – all of which are going to make your job easier! Now choose some single colour skeins that match the colours in your variegated skein. For this project, I selected pink, purple, yellow and a blue-green shade.

A selection of colours from the Stef Francis stranded silks to match my filament silk.

A selection of colours from Stef Francis’ stranded silks to match the filament silk.

You can see instantly that these colours work beautifully together. And why stop at just one set of colours! For example, here is another selection I made from my stash of Cosmo embroidery cottons.

A selection of Cosmo embroidery cottons to match the Stef Francis fialament silk.

A palette of Cosmo embroidery cottons selected to match the Stef Francis fialament silk.

This selection is different to the one above. I have chosen a much duskier pink which shows up on the filament silk where the pink bleeds into the orange. To match this I have toned down the purple shade. The single orange-yellow chosen above has been split into two distinct colours, and the blue has been replaced with green. The key point is that this colour combination STILL WORKS.

3) So now you have some lovely colours and all you need to consider is a little bit of balance. The original Stef Francis filament silk is predominantly pink and purple with smaller amounts of the orange, yellow, green and blue. You can use this to help you decide on where to use your colours. The little design below was stitched using the first of the two colourways above. I assigned pink and purple as my main colours, with yellow as a strong highlight and just a touch of the blue-green shade. And I used the original variegated skein for the floral features.

A simple, colourful design!

A simple, colourful design!

It really is that easy. Without any colour angst at all, I have ended up with a pretty design that uses colours I love in a balanced and harmonious way.

SO GO AHEAD – GIVE IT A GO!

When you are choosing threads for your next project grab a pretty variegated skein in your favourite colours and just start playing. I guarantee that you will have fun and build your colour confidence.

And when you are comfortable with this approach, head over to Part 2 of this series where we will take as our starting point a given colour. I promise it is just as easy as the method I have used here. And if you have a colour story to share me with me, then please leave it in the comments below. I love it when you share with me!

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