Finding Value

Color, value, and pattern all factor into the ways we experience the interplay between patches and blocks.

Value is the relative lightness or darkness of one fabric patch to another. Some would argue that value is more important than color in impact on the quilt design. I’m not sure I’d go that far. To me, color and value are partners, along with the other elements of design. Because some people perceive one more easily than the other, as a quilter you need to be aware of both. Both color and value contribute to the elements of shape and line, to give the total impression of contrast and visual interest.

For those of us who are not color blind, differences in color are pretty easy to see. But value is much harder for many quilters. Value can be obscured by saturation, or by “brightness.” For example, here is a quilt I found interesting. This is my XOXO quilt. Look at the values in the Xs and Os in the last border. Is the pale blue background lighter in value than all the other patches?

XOXO, Medallion Sew-Along Track 1, finish #6. 48″ square. Finished June 2014.

What about the solid medallion I showed you a few days ago? To me, the colors give strong contrast, but the values do not. Are the values the same or different? What is darkest? What is lightest?

Unquilted sample

Prints can make it difficult to discern value differences. To me, this one is darn near a “low volume” (muted, low value-contrast) quilt.

A more modern take

Here is a quilt I made for Jim many years ago. Both value and color seem to be in a narrow range here. Are they?

There are various tricks quilters use to discern value when it isn’t obvious.

  1. Array a group of fabrics from darkest to lightest. Squint or take off your glasses. Are you sure they are in value order? Rearrange if needed. Turn the lights down most of the way, so the room is dim. Now how are they?
  2. Use a colored filter. Viewed through a filter, fabrics generally reveal value differences as the color disappears. However, a red piece of fabric will still show as red if you use a red filter, and green fabric will still show as green through a green filter. To get this to work for all your fabrics, you need multiple filters. That isn’t always convenient, or even easy to remember.
  3. Use a scanner or copier to photocopy fabric swatches, then print in black and white. With the color removed, you can see only value.
  4. Easier (these days) is to take a photo of a set of fabrics. Using either the camera’s own setting, or a photo-editing application, view the picture in black and white. (One photo editor I use is PicMonkey. This is a free service for basic needs, though you can also buy access to an upgraded version.)

Here are the four pictures from above, shown with color removed. The black and white reveals value differences more clearly than you may see with just color. For XOXO you can see there is one block in the top border and one in the bottom border with no value contrast. In black and white, the block almost disappears. The bright pink fools the eye with color contrast, though. You can also see the middle border disappears, because there isn’t enough contrast in the half-square triangles’ values.

In the solid medallion, the fuschia (hot pink) is actually lighter in value than the background grey. And in fact, there is reasonably good value contrast.

This looks low volume (muted and low contrast) in color and in value. The larger prints lead to some of that effect, as the edges between patches blur. My preference, generally, is for stronger contrast than this.

This really is all the same color and value. The main differences are in pattern. It was a deliberate choice I made as an early quilter. Technically it may not work, but in person on Jim’s office wall, it looks darn good.

As I looked for online resources about value, I found them much less available than about color. One of the better blog posts I found was from Piecemeal Quilts. This Skillbuilder Series post talks about color, value, and pattern. There are some helpful photos that show the affects of changing value combinations.

10 thoughts on “Finding Value

  1. Pingback: Tidbits: One may be for you | Zippy Quilts

  2. Thread crazy

    Good post…I too take pictures to see color vs value. I’m blessed to have ability to coordinate colors (at least most of the time with exception of one granddaughter’s quilt). The value as u stated plays an equal part although most quilters go only on color! Well stated post.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I had to think a lot about the color vs value issue. Being aware of both helps make a richer palette and a more complete design. It’s something I’ll be much more aware of from now on.

  3. snarkyquilter

    Thanks for showing that pictures speak louder than words with the black and white version of your quilt photos. It’s one thing to read about using B&W photos to help see value, but much better to actually see it. I’ve found that I can get the B&W effect using Windows Live Photo Gallery that came on my computer with Windows 7. If I click on fix, then “adjust color” and move all 3 sliders completely to the left I can see a B&W version of my photo.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I have a photo editor that lives on my computer, too. I figured some people would know they have one; some people would not. Everybody can access PicMonkey if they want.

      Thanks for taking a look. The B&W versions gave me a couple of surprises, too. Maybe I need to start taking more photos before I get very far in projects!


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