Color Confidence for Quilters Part 7: What is Color Saturation?

Color Confidence for Quilters Part 7: What is Color Saturation?

I have a secret to tell you.... did you know that there are no right or wrong color combinations? Any color can go with any other color if you make a few adjustments: "Magic Color Dials", if you will, that you can adjust to make any combination of colors look lovely together.

We learned about the first of those 2 dials in my previous post on value (see link below) and we'll master the second "dial" today as we discuss color saturation.

This term may sound technical, but it is a concept that can be understood quickly, and when used well can make a huge difference in the color palettes that you put together. This is the 7th lesson in the color series I've been doing, Color Confidence for Quilters. If you missed any of the previous posts, you can find the links below. If you enjoy this article, be sure to sign up for email updates at the bottom of this post so you don't miss the other lessons in this series! Color Confidence for Quilters:

Color Saturation

Last week we learned about the first "magic dial" that can be used to make ANY colors go together-- Value. Today, we're learning about the other magic dial, Saturation! Think about saturation in terms of watercolor paint-- when you barely dip a very wet brush into paint, the results when brushed on paper will be really pale, the color is hardly there. That is a color with really low saturation. Now, if you dip your brush in the paint, really rubbing it in/getting a lot of paint on the brush, the result is much brighter: It is more saturated.
Color Saturation refers to the brightness/intensity of a hue.
For each of the 3 colors below, each box is the same hue, only the saturation decreases as you move from left to the right.
*Sometimes fabrics with a very low saturation are referred to as low volume.


Understanding this "magic saturation dial" to dial up or down the brightness of a color is a secret weapon that designers use to create lovely color palettes! Like value, you can pair ANY colors together and make them look lovely if you adjust the saturation.
Don't believe me?? I am going to a pick color combination that, to me, seems TERRIBLE and try to make it pretty by adjusting the saturation (i.e. making one or more of the colors brighter or paler). 
Note: Hear me on this-- Colors are SO subjective!! What looks good to me might look awful to you. Everyone's tastes and preferences are different, which is why this world is such a varied and interesting place! There is NO objectively bad or good color combination, only combos that look good or bad to you. What looked amazing and fashionable in the 70's can look tragic to our 2017 eyes.
So this terrible (to me) color combo might look fun to you -- there is nothing wrong with that. This is just a challenge to take a color combo that looks gross (to me) at first and adjust it to make it pretty to me.
The first terrible pairing that comes to mind: Pumpkin Orange, Dark Violet, Pea Green, and Magenta
I didn't change any of the hues, just made each hue more or less saturated. It's not my favorite palette I've ever put together, but, to me, this new palette looks WAY better. Again, this is subjective and just to show that you can take something that at first looks awful to you, swap out some brighter or duller colors, and end up with something you like! 

Tip: Use less saturated fabrics to soften a (too) bright palette
Have you ever made a quilt for a little girl or boy, and they picked out colors that were so bright they gave you a headache? Next time, keep those bright colors they chose, but maybe add in a few with a lower saturation. You will likely have more fun putting it together and it will make the quilt look a bit more mature so it can grow with them.
This new palette is still bright, but the added softer fabrics, to me, make this look more interesting and mature. 

Tip:  Add slightly more saturated fabrics to brighten up a dull palette

If you find that a fabric palette that you've pulled looks a little dull, try adding a brighter fabric -- one fabric can brighten up a whole quilt.
The blue I added to this palette is light in value, but still bright (i.e. more saturated/intense). If that blue is too bright to you, you could swap it out for one that is a little paler. 

Tip:  Pay attention to the Tone

A tone is a hue that has some gray in it. Duller fabrics often have some gray in them -- think Civil War prints, those are mostly tones.
When trying to brighten up a dull/tonal palette, I would avoid throwing in a neon green, for example, that might look really abrupt. The bright fabrics below, to me, look odd next to the muted fabrics on the left.
Too bright for this palette! Instead, try grabbing some fabrics that are a little brighter, but still soft. Introducing a richer (highly saturated and darker) fabric can make a dull palette more dynamic. The addition of the light, bright pink and the rich burgundy and olive, to me, make this dull tonal palette much more interesting. (I chose those three colors to add since dulled down versions of them appear in the floral.)
Much better!


The Exercise: Make an Ugly Palette Pretty

This is a fun exercise -- it's going to stretch your creativity and you may even find some lovely color combinations that you would never have otherwise put together.
Go into your fabric stash and pull out the UGLIEST palette you can make! Choose 2-4 different fabrics that, in your opinion, look awful together.
Start with the color(s) that look the worst to you, and swap them out for a much more muted version of that color. Maybe swap one out for a richer color (more saturated, but darker). Keep playing around with the palette, swapping some out for more muted or brighter fabrics, until you end up with a palette that you like!
Now, you may not want to make a quilt out of this palette, but you've at least  gone from revolting to not so bad. Maybe you've even stumbled upon a palette that you love! This is the power of that magic saturation dial-- you can take ANY colors and make them look nice together. This could also be a fun exercise to get out of color ruts. 
The next time you are underwhelmed by a fabric pull, ask yourself if you can add in brighter or paler fabrics to make the palette more exciting.
Stay tuned as we continue to learn about how color works, especially as it related to quilting.
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Now, I’d love to hear from you! Did you find this helpful? Do you tend to choose lots of highly saturated/bright prints, or do you reach for the muted, soft fabrics?
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I have read countless books on colour, but still don,t seem to get it right . The information above has given me a light bulb moment what I am doing wrong . Thank you


Very interesting and very helpful, thank you, Maxine

Maxine Kelly

Really great information and samples on this article! I love color and am enjoying this series.


I really struggle with colour, so was very excited to come across your fantastic site. Many thanks!


This series has been great! And lol the color examples are really helpful.anks, Shannon.

Cathy C

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