Color Theory for Beadwork

What is your favorite color?I don’t have one. When I was a child the answer would have been a combination ofpink and red.  I was told early on though that pink and red do NOT go together.  Since pink is born of red, I always found that notion rather silly. I still do.  What I should have been told was:  fire engine red does not go well with pale pink but there are other reds that do! So I painted my room green and blue.  Green trim, blue walls.  The green was soft like leaves before they fall to autumn.  The blue was like a deep sky just after a rain.  I could live with it.

I live with favorite color combinations which have a tendency to grow and mutate over time.  But the themes do not change.  They are my personal themes.  I believe everyone who works in color has within them certain color themes.  It takes a lot of looking back into our heads to find out just what they are. I do have favorite bead colors (which is a combination of finishes and colors, since beads do not any longer exist in the realm of just opaque color) that I rely on as the base of most of my work.  You can tell which bead colors I love the most by the fact that they live in 100 gram packs.  The accent beads live in bead tubes.  By buying large quantities of the beads I love most I allow myself to freely use them.  Since I have a tendency to not want to use up what I love most, this trick is imperative for me to freely create.

The worse decision to make when trying to pick what color bead to use in a piece is the one based on:  gee I’ve got a lot of these beads I really should use.  I don’t think I’ve ever successfully produced a piece on that decision and I can tell you about a whole lot of pieces I’ve cut up and returned to the bead box after having done so.

The Choices You Don’t Make

Trying to decide what bead not to use is more important than the ultimate decision of what bead to use.  You’ve got your stash or your color card or you are standing in front of a display of what seems like five billion beads and you are trying to pick out a limited number of beads to make, let’s say, a bracelet.  What you are actually doing in this process is eliminating the beads you won’t use.  “Nope, won’t use that bright yellow.  Negative for that matt deep red.  Not in the mood for metallic blue-green.  Well maybe, because it might look great with that amazing palladium silver.  And if I add that matt metallic green.  No.  No.  Not the matt metallic green.  Gotta go somewhere else with this.  Yes, the pink gold!  Nah, not the pink gold.”  And so it goes for what can take a very long time.  I find standing at a bead display in a store very daunting, although not as daunting as it used to be.  I have been on my bead journey for quite a while now and I’ve figured out what beads compromise my personal “bead theme.”  Sure, I can break out of it, but there is a ground work there.  And because of that, I usually have some idea of what needs to end up home in my bead basket.  That’s not to say I am in a rut, I just know what I love.  And it was something I could only figure out.

The most important choice you make in beadwork is color.  Sure, the design is important but bad color choices can ruin a piece more than a not so great design.  A not so great design with great colors might survive the scissors.

Woven Color

The next problem when choosing color is that those beads in their tubes or even in piles on your bead board don’t necessarily speak the same language they ultimately will when woven together.  In other words, that kind of weird brassy green you didn’t choose might have been perfect in a tiny quantity with the colors you did choose.  The only way you can find out is to play.

In a perfect world, our studio would look like the walls at Caravan Beads and we could experiment until we needed a new glasses prescription.  We could grab that brassy green, spill out a few beads, and see if it sings with the rest of our palette.  Taking the plunge and buying that brassy green can be daunting and even impossible.  Who wants to buy colors they might only use two of or might never use at all?

However, a lot of us have colors in our bead stash that we don’t much use.  I know I said not to ever choose your colors by trying to use up beads in your stash, but that’s not the same as hauling some dusty tube out with a color you used ten years ago for some long-forgotten project for a bead workshop you would also like to forget.  I am talking about climbing into your stash and unearthing something different.

I found a lovely transparent green by doing just that.  I probably used all of twenty beads, but it fit.  It fit perfectly.  Now that I know about that green I might very well pull it out again, but it did take a lot of bravery to make the first plunge.

What Colors Live Inside Your Brain?

For those of you starting off on the quest for a reasonable bead stash you need to spend a lot of time thinking about what you really love.  Sure, you can study color theory and you can play with all those color wheels and you can read the latest bead color forecasts, but all that does not add up to what lives inside your soul.  Maybe that sounds dramatic, but let’s face it:  you are creating these pieces so these pieces should be your colors.  That’s what makes them yours in a large part.

So how do you find your colors?  If you subscribe to my theory that they live inside your and you just need to turn your eyes inward to see what your brain already has stored, then you need to engage a little fantasy time.  My method is to lie in bed in the darkness, figuratively turn my eyes inward toward my brain and turn on the color slide show.  If you give yourself permission to do this, in time the colors will start to flow.  And if you are lucky, you might pick up some patterns too.  And as those colors flow you will find yourself attaching emotion to them.

Let’s face it:  color is emotional.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know why music is emotional.  Or why touch and smell are emotional.  But they all are.  We aren’t taught this.  Color sits on a color wheel and we are meant to learn the rules of the color wheel and then mathmatically apply it to our art.  That’s absurd.  If we applied that kind of math to music (even though music once created can be seen as mathamatical) we would create music that sounds like math.  Imagine that?  So I propose that you apply the “color rules” after you’ve created the color if you must apply the rules at all.

The color rules were invented by humans to try to explain what lives inside us already, to explain something that already is just as math explains what is there.  Math does not invent it.  Color lives in our world, in our brains, in our spirits, in our thoughts, in just about everything we see.  We have all the information we need to fold it into our art work.  We just have to trust ourselves.

Open your eyes.  Look around you.  What color combinations in that world do you love?  And why do you love them?  I recall buying a towel once that had color combinations I never would have put together but they were perfect.  And for months I used that information to weave (I was just a tapestry weaver then).  I didn’t actually copy those colors, but I used the same sense of surprise I found there to surprise myself with the colors I was choosing.  It opened something up to me that I had not understood. I was able to break away from preconceptions about color that were holding me back.  That was the beginning.

Bead Finishes

Beads are unique in that they have “finishes.”  They are not made of opaque color that lies flat on a page.  They embody properties that are different from, let’s say, yarn or paint.  Hold a piece of beadwork up to the light, and half of the beads will loose their beauty.  They are not stained glass even though they are made of glass.  They are not meant to have light shine through them and yet they are made to have light shine on them.  I can think of no other material like that.


A Box of Pastels


I once wrote in a poem:  “I am living inside a box of pastels.”  How could I know then how true that line would eventually become.  At the time I think was just living inside teenager angst.  I didn’t understand then how connected I was to color and how it would form my life in beautiful and unexpected ways, how it would emerge to engulf me and point me solidly to a world in which I now live every day.  There is not a day that goes by in which color is absent.  I am now unusual in this.  I just acknowledge that fact.  I don’t think you can be an artist without this daily fascination with color and how it intersects our visual field constantly.

I will be adding to this post (photos and more thoughts) as the week progresses.


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Color Impressions

Color Impressions (originally published in Spin-Off Magazine)

I began weaving tapestry with commercially dyed and spun yarn. In order to make the yarns ”sing” I combined various weights and types of yarns together using the method known to tapestry weavers as weft blending. Eventually, I learned how to dye these yarns, giving me even more control over the final product. Still, a certain inner glow was missing from my tapestries.
I wasn’t able to define what was absent until a student showed up to my class with a tapestry woven from her own color-blended, handspun yarns. I was astounded by the muted, watercolor-like glow that emanated from her first tapestry. I had always said I would never learn to spin. In that moment I knew the choice was not mine to make.
The next day I was the owner of a spinning wheel and a couple of pounds of Merino roving from a friend’s sheep. In the first week I learned two things: how to spin a yarn that was acceptable and why all fleeces are not the same. I knew I wasn’t spinning the right fleece for tapestry weaving but I had no idea what type of fleece was right. I asked a lot of questions before I understood which fleeces are appropriate for tapestry, how those fleeces should be prepared, and how to blend the dyed fibers for spinning. Since becoming a bonafied spinner I have discovered that the journey from fleece to yarn is as integral to the tapestries as the weaving itself.

I have decided that certain long wools work best for my tapestries. I prefer Cotswold, but also enjoy Wendslydale and Lincoln. I usually blend these wools with mohair and sometimes little bits of Angelina fiber, which is a totally synthetic fiber that comes in a variety of colors and reflects light in a great imitation of nature. I both comb and drum card my fiber, depending on how well I want to blend the colors since there is a minimum of two colors of fleece in every yarn I spin. I use combs when I want each fiber color to be equally blended throughout the yarn creating a more uniform color appearance and the illusion of a solid color. The drum carder is useful when one wants a more uneven distribution of color and a more variegated looking yarn.

The best method for becoming comfortable with color blending is to practice with small amounts of colored fleece just using hand combs or cards or even you fingers. Start with closely related colors and then throw in a color from the other side of the color wheel. Because the fiber colors do not bleed together like paint, your chances of coming out with mud are non-existent. Gradually add colors, being mindful simply of whether or not the results look good. You can often correct a bad color choice by adding a neutralizing color from the other side of the color wheel. Break out of your familiar color traps by combining three colors that you think will look hideous together. You will find that often the results are better than anything you could have planned. The goal is to experiment with tiny quantities of fiber until you have created a bunch of sample blends. Spin it all up and see what worked and what did not. The final test is weaving this yarn because even an apparently ugly yarn can work beautifully in small quantities in a tapestry. The gift is that as a spinner you can mix your own paints, exerting complete control over the colors in your weaving.

Tricks are great for becoming comfortable working with color, but learning how to see the colors that exist all around us is imperative. Nature is the single best source for this knowledge. Not only does nature provide a perfect assortment of color combinations, but she also showers these colors with an ever changing light show. Matisse used to paint the same scene again and again as the light changed. The colors in each of the paintings from a series are radically different from one another. The experiment is easy to do. Find a patch of nature that appeals to you and watch it for an extended period of time and at different times. Randomly choose to really look at color combinations in nature. Why does that bright red flower look great against the kelly green spring grass? I was always told that yellow greens and blue greens don’t go well together and yet nature is a riot of such green combinations.

I recently received feedback from a student during the last class of a tapestry and bead weaving workshop. She had just returned from a trip to the Bahamas. She was determined to look at the colors of nature while on this trip to inspire the final project for the class. She choose the moment of sunset to watch the colors change above and across the water. She watched it intently every day for a week. When she showed me her final weaving I was stunned. The little flecks of orange and red and yellow and green exploding in a literal sea of blue shading into a lighter blue brought me right to that beach at sunset. There was no sun in her piece. There was just the magic of color that the sun shakes off into the sky and water right before it leaves. It’s a magic all of us are capable of both seeing and recreating.

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