Color Confidence for Quilters– Part 4: Complementary Color Palettes

Color Confidence for Quilters– Part 4: Complementary Color Palettes

What fabrics should I choose for this quilt? What other colors go with blue? I found this fabulous print that I want to use, but what other fabrics would go with it?? No matter how much I sew, my fabric stash keeps growing!

Any of that sound familiar?

Fabric selection is a huge struggle for so many quilters. Since we feel unsure about what colors "go" together, we often will just grab a kit, precut, or use only fabrics from the same collection. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but what ends up happening is this: After a project, we have a few fat quarters left over, but since the leftovers aren't enough for a whole quilt, we don't know what else to do with them! So they go in our stash and sit there for years. And our stash grows... and grows... and grows!

Understanding how color works gives you confidence to pair that left over fat quarter with others in your stash to create something totally new! Luckily understanding color and developing an "eye for color" is totally learnable. This is the 4th lesson in the series, Color Confidence for Quilters. The first lesson was all about understanding the color wheel, and in the last 2, we've been exploring classic color palettes. Today we're continuing with one of my favorites to play with -- Complementary Palettes! If you missed any of the past lessons, you can find them below.

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Color Confidence for Quilters:

Classic Color Palettes: Complementary + Split-Complementary 

I love using complementary palettes. Colors opposite one another on the color wheel pair beautifully together and create an interesting and balanced palette, since they include both warm and cool colors.
complementary color palette is made from color opposite one another on the color wheel.
Complementary Color Wheel
A split-complementary color palette is made from colors opposite one another on the color wheel, along with the 2 colors adjacent one of them.
Split Complementary Color Wheel via


There are so many different complementary palettes you could create and so many different ways to use them. The first three palettes below are complementary while the bottom three are examples of split-complementary palettes. All would look lovely in your next quilt project! Color Confidence for Quilters: Complementary + Split Complementary Color Palettes


There are so many different and fun ways you can use a complementary or split complementary palette in your next quilt project, below are some ideas you might try. There are a lot of different ideas here, you don't need to use all of these ideas in one project, but maybe choose just one idea to play with for your next fabric pull.

Idea: Place one color in the background and have its complement in the foreground.

I do this a lot with my Scrappy Appliqué quilts. The complementary color in the background really makes the appliqué piece stand out.  In the skyline row quilt below, since orange and blue are opposite one another on the wheel, I knew putting the orange appliqué pieces on blue backgrounds would really make them pop. Also in the blue bear quilt below, I pieced shades of orange bear claw blocks for the background. This could certainly be done with pieced patterns too-- try making the sashing, for example, be the complement to the main block color.

Tip: Warm colors pop, cool colors recede -- consider this. 

Warm colors (red, yellow, orange) tend to pop, while cool colors (green, blue, purple) tend to recede. You can use this to make certain elements in the design stand out or to create balance in your design. The skylines in the row quilt below really pop out since they are orange (warm) on the (cool) blue background. I think there is a lot of balance in the bear quilt in the upper right corner since the bear is made of bright blues of a variety of values, but is placed on the more muted orange and cream background. Since the blue recedes a bit and the orange pieced paws pop a bit, there is a strong balance. I think if I had made the paws blue and the bear orange, with the paws receding, he might have popped too much, especially if I kept him bright. Also, in the yellow deer quilt below, even though the background is pretty vibrant, the yellow deer still pops out, because the blue (cool) recedes and the yellow (warm) pops. It also stands out because I kept the values in the deer all medium (see the tip below about playing with value).  

Scrappy Applique Quilts with Complementary Palettes Find the patterns for these quilts, here: Skyline Row Quilt, Bear Quilt, Deer Quilt

Idea: Play with Value

Let's look first at the blue and yellow deer quilt above. The background has several shades of turquoise with a wide range of values (remember, value is the lightness or darkness of a color), so there is a lot going on in that background. Because of that, I did not vary the value in the deer-- they are mostly medium value fabrics; this helps the deer (in addition to being a warm color on the opposite side of the color wheel) really stand out.

Idea: Play with Saturation

When I'm building any kind of complementary palette, I typically like to have one of the colors be more muted and one be more saturated. Saturation refers to the intensity of the color (a bright blue versus a faded, grayish- blue, for example). Notice in the tree quilt below, I used some intense blues and purples. I wanted to add a warm pop of color, and knew orange would fit beautifully (creating a split-complementary palette), but since the blues and purples are so intense, I chose to balance that with a less saturated (more muted) apricot. This is just a personal preference, if you'd like a really bold/vibrant look, pair two really saturated colors, or if you'd like a really soft, airy look, pair 2 muted colors. We'll go into playing with saturation more later in this series.

Idea: Create a monochromatic or analogous palette with pops of a complementary color.

This is an easy way to create a complementary or split complementary palette, and how I usually build mine. I start with a monochromatic (single color) or analogous (colors next to one another on the color wheel) palette, and decide I want to add a pop of color. So I jump to the other side of the color wheel for that pop. In the orange bear quilt above, I had just a few pops of mint. Notice in the 4 quilts below, I created an analogous palette, and just added in pops of a complement. I love this look and use it a lot. You could also create an entirely monochromatic or analogous quilt and then make the binding or backing be a complementary color, for a fun and unexpected addition.

Scrappy Applique Quilts with Split-Complementary Palettes Find the patterns for these quilts, here: Deer Quilt, Bunny Pillow, Tree Wall Quilt (in my book), Elephant Tablet/Computer Case


a double-complementary palette uses 2 pairs of complementary colors

Double Complementary Wheel via

This is another classic color palette option. Notice in the example below, I used the "play with saturation" tip above, and paired each bright/saturated fabric with a more muted/less saturated fabric. Again, since my personal preference is a balanced palette, this is how I make this palette not look too wild or too dull. Color Series - web-19


The Exercise: Pull a Complementary Color Palette 

Color Series - web-5
Using the fabrics in your stash, pull several fabrics for a sample complementary, split-complementary, and/or double-complementary palette. You don’t have to actually use them for a project, this is just to help train your eye. Use your Color Wheel (or download my free Color Wheel here ) to help you.
Maybe use some of the tips from earlier in the lesson: play with value and saturation, create a monochromatic or analogous palette with pops of the complement.

The more you play with color palettes, use your color wheel, and think about/notice color, the stronger your color intuition will grow. This will make choosing fabrics a fun and creative experience, rather than an intimidating one.

Next week, we’ll explore another inspirational palette, and the week after we’ll learn about another classic color palette: Triadic Color Palettes!

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Now, I’d love to hear from you! Which tip or idea seems most intriguing to you? Have you used complementary color palettes in quilts in the past?

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Color Confidence for Quilters– Part 4: Triadic Color Palettes | Shannon Brinkley Studio

Thank you for sharing your knowledge of color theory. It is very helpful


You’re so welcome! Glad you’re finding it helpful!

Shannon Brinkley

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