Why Color Is Irrelevant

I like color. No, I mean, I really like color. Often, I like more color than appears naturally in my subjects. A pink rhino? Been there. A multi-colored dodo bird? Done that.

Despite that, it’s actually value that allows me to indulge my passion for color.

In a comment on a previous blog, a follower asked me if I would describe how I inject vibrant, non-realistic color into my pieces:

My pieces are natural and realistic and I feel a bit intimidated by the abstract pieces I see around me but I know what speaks to me. I would like to make the leap to translate the actual colors to the bright and fanciful as you did with Croc. That would be my next step. Will you be talking about how you translate your color values to the palette you have? It’s wonderful! For now I can’t ‘see’ beyond the real coloring.

—Ginny from timelessarts.blogspot.com

Well, Ginny, I’ll do my best.


Ginny nailed it. It’s all about value. And we’re not talking about catching the sale at Macy’s.

Value is the relative degree of lightness or darkness of a particular color.

I spend a lot of time and effort in the classes I teach talking about and giving examples of value. It’s probably the most important art concept to understand when faced with the challenge of translating an image into fabric. Value is what gives a shape form and depth. Take a face, for example. Look at the highlights on the tip of the nose and cheekbones. Notice the shadows under the eyebrow and under the chin.

Learning to recognize and separate one value from another frees you up to make any color choice you prefer. As long as you are faithful to representing the comparative values of your subject, color is, in fact, irrelevant.

Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales

A good example of tossing realistic color out the window while remaining true to value is my quilt “Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales.”

Peace, Love72dpi
Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales

In this portrait of my son, Sam, I used four completely different color palettes, yet each one is a fairly faithful rendering of his face.

How did I do it?

Did I sit with the photograph of Sam in front of me and break down all the different values for each of the four portraits?

Hardly. No, I took a much more pragmatic approach. I did what I teach my students to do.

Step One: Find a photo you like. You should choose one with good contrast and wide range of values, from very dark to very light, if possible.


Step Two (optional): Convert the image to grayscale. Viewing the image in black and white converts color to pure value. In the photo below I also increased the contrast to deepen the darks and brighten up the lights.


Step Three: Break down the values by tracing shapes. To separate highlights from shadows I shaded in some of the shapes.

PLTDSTW tracing

From this point, I transferred the tracing (four times) onto muslin at the enlargement I wanted.


Great. I’ve broken the image apart into its constituent values—now what do I do? What fabrics and what colors do I choose?

One question I ask myself, and my students, at this point is “Why?” Why do you want to change the coloring? How will it add to the feel of the piece? Does it help to define your subject matter?

In the case of “Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales,” I had a very specific reason for using the colors I did. As you can imagine, that helped immensely.

The phrase Peace, Love, Tie-Dye, Save the Whales has a special meaning for Sam and me. It represents the goodbye we said (and still say 5 years later) to each other at the bus stop (or now as he leaves for college). We use hand signals for the phrase—no words are needed.

This theme, coupled with Sam’s love of the Beatles (and his resemblance in this photo to one of the band members), made me think of the repeated imagery of Andy Warhol, especially his portrait of John Lennon. You know the one:


Okay, then. I now knew that I would create four portraits—one for each part of our greeting. And I knew, from Warhol’s inspiration, that each would have a unique color theme.

Peace would be peaceful greens—a good choice for my tree-hugging kid; Love would be sixties-era hearts and flowers with lots of reds; Tie-Dye would be, well, tie-dye with yellows and oranges; and Save the Whales would be a watery sort of look, blues and blue-greens.

Choosing Fabrics

I told you how much I like color, right?

Well, I even like my color to have color. Other than muslin, I don’t think I own a solid-color piece of fabric. I prefer patterns, the bolder the better. Take a look at a partial selection of fabrics for each portrait.

Clockwise from upper left: fabric for  Peace, Love, Save the Whales, and Tie-Dye.

Notice they are grouped not only by color, but are also arranged by value (sort of), darkest at the left of each group, lightest at the right. If you’re having trouble distinguishing the differences (made more difficult by the bold patterns I use), try squinting.

If you still have trouble, try this: do what I did with the original photo of Sam. Take a photo of your fabric choices and change it to black and white. Here are the four groups of fabrics paired with their black and white images.

As you can see, in the black and white version of the fabrics, color is irrelevant. A medium value red could easily match a medium value blue, green, or orange. I could choose darks, mediums, and lights from any (or all!) of the color groups to create an image.

Here’s a little game. For each of the faces below, try to pick out the fabric assortment I used based solely on value. Of course, you’ll have to try to ignore the patterns. Squint if you have to.

Until you look at the fabric patterns, it’s hard (impossible?) to tell which is which, isn’t it? Hopefully, this drives home the point that color is irrelevant to form.

Being able to see values allows you to choose colors based on any criteria you wish. Maybe purple is your favorite color and you want to make a purple armadillo. Go ahead. If you need to, convert the original photo to black and white and break out the values. Then take all your purple fabrics and arrange them by value, realizing that in some, you’ll find a wide variety of values due to their designs. Do what you can and double check by taking a picture of them and converting it to black and white.

It may seem contradictory, but in order to expand your color palette, you may need to ignore color and concentrate on value. You may never look at your fabrics the same way again!

Next Week: Visiting “Stevie”

I travel to Cedarburg, Wisconsin to see the exhibition “From Insects to Elephants” at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts where my quilt “Crocodylus Smylus” is having its premier.


45 thoughts on “Why Color Is Irrelevant

  1. I recently presented a guild program about how to use your stash. One of the things I said was “color doesn’t matter, if you use 100 different fabrics it’s the value that matters”. There were a lot of “ahs” from the audience!
    You have explained this much more eloquently, I may be referring quilters to this post at future lectures! 🙂
    Also, I took a class from you 20 yrs ago and you changed the way I look at fabric and approach quilting!


  2. Thank you for this clarification. I too love color, can’t be too intense for me. I am really drawn to your work and own a couple of books. This will help me with placement, the black and white tip really makes a difference to see the value. Have a great time visiting Stevie. I am sure you are proud to see it displayed. I loved seeing the process of it being made.


  3. Susan, I was so surprised to see a response to my question. And THANK YOU! I really want to try this. I had heard this explanation before regarding values but yours made sense. I see in my works that often my color choices are in very close proximity value wise. I want to try complete color/value change to step away from the actual colors to better ‘see’ the values. Thanks so much!~ Ginny


  4. Thank you for writing this all out and explanation. I do love the collage technique you teach and am sort of stuck with the translation. I see in one you do more complementary colors (the tie dye, and love a bit) and the others are more monochromatic. So I am wondering how to really do value with complementary colors which I am always drawn to. Is is the same? you just get a stronger look because they are complementary? Wondering if the value translates equally. I started thinking of Andy Warhol right away when I first started reading the article! I am thankful for this because it might help me finish my blueberries!!!!!!! they are on the agenda after the holidays


    1. Christina,

      You said: “So I am wondering how to really do value with complementary colors which I am always drawn to. Is is the same? you just get a stronger look because they are complementary? Wondering if the value translates equally.”

      I think I could have emphasized that point a little more. If you take a look at the black and white photos of the fabrics you’ll see that value is value. You can match a value of red with a value of green and use them interchangeably (at least in theory–you may have other reasons for choosing either red or green).


  5. This was excellent!! Thank you so much! I do rug hooking with my own designs and am learning about value a bit by default. I would love to insert unusual colors and now I know how! Thank you! I am wondering how value differs from contrast….


    1. The two are certainly easy to confuse. Contrast is the difference in value between two colors. Black vs. white is high contrast. Black vs. dark gray is low contrast. Notice with contrast we’re talking about the relationship between two colors. Value on the other hand is the darkness or lightness of one particular color. Maroon is dark, pink is light, both are in the red family. Hope this helps.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Susan–just found your work and your blog. Outstanding! And this post about value is probably the clearest explanation of how to ‘see’ it I’ve come across to date. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this–the tip about taking a photo of your fabric selection and then converting it to a grey-scale image is priceless. I’ve used a Ruby Beholder, but unless the lighting is just so, I struggle with seeing the values as clearly as a photo image presents.

    Looking forward to watching your blog develop. Have a wonderful New Year!


  7. Trying to pursue a long dream but all tricks are new to me. The very simple first learners question “What kind of glue do you use” in order to be able to run stitches later “or” is this technique just glued?


  8. OH! Ha ha! I have really struggled with value before. I still need to play and apply some of your ideas and techniques, but it is starting to make sense. Thank you so much!


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