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Color Confidence for Quilters Part 8: A Complete Guide to Using Neutrals

So often when we are choosing fabrics for our next quilt, we jump right to colors, hopefully grabbing several that make you really happy, but frequently we forget about the quiet, but mighty, neutral! 

Neutrals help your other fabrics to stand out. You can use them to make a vibrant, wild palette look soft and airy (like my tree quilt below). You can add a lot of depth and dimension without adding color by adding charcoal or black. Neutrals can really round out a fabric palette, making it look more complete and dynamic. 

But, what are neutrals exactly? And how do I know which ones go with which colors? Aren't all grays basically the same? A beige is a beige, right? 

Today we are diving DEEPLY into a serene sea of neutrals! Whether you are a beginner color-wise or feel like you have a really good eye for color, I think you'll find something in this article that will change the way you view these useful fabrics.

This is the 8th part in my series: Color Confidence for Quilters. To catch up on past articles, click here


Beginner Rules of Thumb:

There are so many creative ways you can use neutrals, most of which involve paying attention to the undertones of the neutrals and making design choices. 

If you are a beginner, in regards to working with color palettes, start with these rules of thumb, then slowly integrate the tips and info below, as you start to become more comfortable with color. 

  • Grays go well with cool colors (blue, green, violet)
  • Beiges/Creams go well with warm colors (red, orange, yellow)

If that is enough info for you right now, stop here -- this is a great place to start.

Picasso famously said that you should "learn the rules like a master, so you can break them like an artist." If you are more comfortable with color, read Understanding Undertones, then dive into the tips below, and learn how to break every rule above to create something interesting and unique. 


Understanding Undertones

Neutrals are typically seen as devoid of color and are variations of black, white, gray, browns, or creams. Most neutrals, though, have undertones of particular hues. Noticing these undertones and being deliberate with the neutrals that you use can make a great impact in your palettes. 

*Important: Different computer screens will show color differently, so if you're not seeing the undertones, it could be because of that. Also, noticing the undertones in neutrals is a skill that takes practice-- like noticing hues in our vibrant color wheel, you have to train your eye to see these differences, except neutrals are even tougher to discern since they're subtle. The more you work with and pay attention to color, the easier and more intuitive this will become.

Beiges:

When I'm talking about beige, this ranges from a creamy gray, to brown, to butterscotch. These are our warm neutrals, and generally go well with warm colors and earth tones. If you are working with "muddier" tones (think Civil War prints), beiges usually work better than grays.

Beiges will have pink, green, or yellow undertones.

Grays:

Grays range from a light, hazy gray all the way to rich charcoals. These are our cool neutrals and typically go well with cool colors. Grays really come to life with vibrant, clear colors.

Grays will have violet, blue, or green undertones.

Taupes:

Taupe is a combination of gray and beige, leaning a bit more toward gray. You can find both cool and warm taupes.

Taupes will have pink or violet undertones.

Whites:

White fabric is often not "true white". You can work with a "true white", but a lot of quilters find it too bright and opt for an off-white (same reason most wedding dresses are ivory or "natural" white, rather than stark white). Kona Snow is a good example of "off-white" as it has very subtle yellow undertones. 

 

I created the Neutral Color Wheel below to help you see where neutrals lie on the color wheel and how they are divided by warm and cool tones. I hope you find it helpful! You can download it here

 

Download my Neutral Color Wheel to print or save to your device! 


My Tips for Working with Neutrals

Be deliberate with Value (darkness/lightness)

Light neutrals will make your entire quilt seem lighter/airier/more serene, while darker neutrals will make your whole quilt look more dark/bold/striking. 

Think about the mood you'd like to create with your quilt:

  • If you are going for serene, soft, elegant, or understated, stick with whites, creams, taupes, and light grays. 

  • If you'd like a more dramatic, bold, moody, or attention-grabbing quilt, you may want to include more blacks, dark browns, and/or charcoals, like in my flock quilt below. 

The same palette can look totally different when you swap out dark or light neutrals. 

Be deliberate with Warm vs. Cool Neutrals

Think about the palette you are building, and how temperature is used/balanced. You could choose to create one of two effects by adding a neutral:

  • Add harmony by choosing a warm neutral for a mostly warm palette or a cool neutral for a mostly cool palette. This is often the best and safest option, especially for those relatively new to working deeply with color. 
  • Create Balance by adding a warm neutral to a mostly cool palette or a cool neutral to a mostly warm palette. If you have both warm and cool colors in your palette, think to yourself.... is this palette looking to cool? If so, add a warm neutral to create balance; and vice versa. This is a trickier method, but can look really interesting when done well. 

Usually your best bet is to choose a neutral with undertones that match the predominant color in your quilt. So if your quilt has lots of different blues, a blue-gray will look lovely. If your quilt has a lot of yellows and oranges, a cream, yellow or orange-beige will blend great. 

Mixing whites and creams

My mother always told me that you shouldn't mix white and cream (this rule was given when she taught me not to wear white after labor day and about the magic of "winter white" during the holiday season). While this is a good rule of thumb for beginners, with some intention, you can pair white and cream to create some really interesting effects. 

In this tree quilt (pattern in my book) the white (which is somewhere between a "true white" and an "off white") background helps the cream trunk/branches to stand out while still maintaining an airy/soft look. Notice I used a creamy/gray (or greige) fabric for the binding-- it's also one of the bark fabrics. I think bringing one of the beige fabrics out to the binding helps to subtly frame the piece and adds balance. Since there was so much color in the leaves, keeping the rest of the palette super light and neutral not only makes the bright colors seem brighter/stand out, I think it keeps the quilt soft and elegant, which was my goal. 

Putting the bear on the cream background makes that black & white text print I used as an accent and for the binding stand out, but in a soft/subtle way. 

Mixing Black and Brown

Did you gasp? For a lot of us, we were taught that the cardinal sin of fashion is to wear brown and black together. Again, this is a good rule of thumb when you're teaching your teenage son about which shoes to pair with which belt, but with a good eye and intention, you can certainly pair brown with black in both quilt making and fashion. 

My favorite way to do this is to pair a light brown or camel with black 

How to Use Black

Black is tricky to work with. It is very heavy-- since it is so dark, your eye goes straight to it in a composition. Because of this, a lot of quilters choose to not use black, but you can use this talent of black's to your advantage. Black can add a lot of depth and impact to a quilt, when used well. 

  • Use in pops
In both the bunny and world map quilt below, I used that black and white print as an accent in the appliqué piece, as well as in the binding. The skinny black lines in the print are really subtle, but add a nice dark pop as well as texture. 

     

    • Pair with cream or white
    In the two quilts above I paired the black pops with a lot of white, this added depth and texture, while keeping the whole quilt light and airy, which is what I was going for. In the robot tea towel below, I used the black in pops, but paired it with cream. I love cream and black together. 

    Surrounding the black plus sign blocks with white kept this runner looking light and bright. 

     

    • Black pairs best with intense, saturated colors 

    Like I mentioned before, black pairs beautifully with white, cream, gray, and camel brown. When working with colors, black pairs best with intense, saturated colors. The saturated colors help to offset the heaviness of the black, creating balance. 

    There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes you will see quilts that have an overall low saturation with bits of black, to lovely effect. This is usually because there are some pops of one or more highly saturated colors that balance out the black.

       I chose the black binding to frame this highly saturated skyline quilt. 


      PRACTICE

      Sort your Neutrals

      Noticing undertones, like noticing subtle differences in hues, takes practice. If you are having a hard time seeing the difference between a green-gray and a blue-gray right now, that is OKAY! It will come with practice and attention. 

      Color sorting excersizes, like the one explained below, will help train your eye to start noticing these super subtle (but impactful) differences. 

      •  First separate them into 3 piles: black/white (setting solid blacks aside), beiges/browns, and grays

       

      • Start with your black/white pile. We are going to sort the whites (or black and white prints, focusing on the white in the print). Sort them into 2 piles, "true white" and "off-white". Using a sheet of bright white printer paper to compare to the fabric may be helpful.

       

      • Next move onto your grays, sorting into green, blue, and violet undertones. Use the Neutral Color Wheel to help. It also might be helpful to compare with a pure gray, like in my Grayscale Printout. Often we only see the subtleties in color by comparing. If you happen to have a Kona Fabric Color Card, green-grays are closer to Iron, blue-grays are close to Slate, and violet-grays are close to Coal. Don't stress over each fabric-- take your best guess and move on. Progress over perfection, always. 

       

      • Next move on to your beige piles. Use the Neutral Color Wheel  to help you do this, or find a piece of bright yellow, green, and pink or red (as close to the pure hue as possible) fabric to compare. Again, don't stress to much if this is really challenging, it just means you have room to grow! It will come in time. 

         

        The more you do exercises like this one, the more you pay attention to subtleties in color, the more you will see, and your color intuition will grow.

        I hope you've enjoyed this article! I put a lot of time and thought into it. Please let me know if you have any questions, and I'd love to hear from you! What are the neutrals you use most frequently? Are there any you seldom use? 

        If you enjoyed this article, be sure to subscribe below to get email updates when I add more to this series. Next week I'll have another color palette inspiration post!

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        4 comments

        • Playing with color is my favorite thing, and this article about neutrals is terrific! Currently I’m curating blacks for a black/grey log cabin, and will focus on highly saturated colors for my 4 colored “cabins”. Thank-you for the advice.

          Karen
        • All of the colour articles in this series have been fantastic! Thanks for publishing them, they’re very well thought out.

          Cathy
        • Enjoyed the article. Something I’ve never would have thought. Can’t wait till I read the other posts on color. Thank you.

          Jane

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