Saturday, December 19, 2009

A lesson in values

Blue is the color I love in a quilt
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel October 3, 2009

Main Entry: val·ue

Pronunciation: \ˈval-(ˌ)yü\

Function: noun

6 a : relative lightness or darkness of a color : luminosity b : the relation of one part in a picture to another with respect to lightness and darkness

7 : something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable

From Merriam-Webster online

In a bookstore in Seattle this summer, I fell in love with a shade of blue. It’s not a turquoise blue, but it has a hint of green in it. It’s not a gray-blue, but it is pale and lovely. It’s the color of the sky on a clear autumn morning.

It was featured prominently in a book called “Patchwork Style” by Suzuko Koseki, with all kinds of quilting projects—mini bags for special occasions, potholders and aprons too nice to risk staining with spaghetti sauce, and of course, quilts. It was the blue in the quilts that made me buy the book and then search out fabrics on my way home from Seattle. I carried the book into fabric stores in Ashland and Arcata and held it up to bolts of fabric. When the right fabric was $9.95 a yard, I bought some anyway—I had to have that blue in my life.

Let me say from the outset that I am not a quilter. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about color and color combinations the way a serious quilter would. But, of course, this sudden obsession with sky blue and how to make it a part of my everyday life, made me think more about the magic that real quilters perform on a daily basis.

I went to the Santa Cruz County Fair two weekends ago and spent an hour talking with several quilters who were demonstrating their talents. I asked them how they make decisions about colors in their quilts. Jenny Hibberd, who teaches quilting techniques, says a successful quilter thinks about values (the relative lightness or darkness of a color) when designing a quilt. “It doesn’t matter what the colors or the prints are, for the most part you’re looking at the values. You can have a fabulous quilt even with random fabrics.”

So, I learned, a quilt made with only sky blue fabrics wouldn’t sing at all. It would look flat and the pieced patterns would be lost without adding fabrics of contrasting value. It wasn’t just the blue I fell in love with—it was the blue in relation to other color values.

I noticed that a lot of the quilts I was attacted to in “Patchwork Style” combined sky blue with lots of white (a lighter value than sky blue), fire engine red (a darker value), and midnight blue (a much darker value). I was beginning to see how it was all coming together.

For some more thoughts on color, and since Open Studios ArtTour 2009 begins this weekend, I talked with a few artists who stand out for their use of color.

Mike Bailey, a watercolorist who paints ocean bluffs that look like radiant stained glass, says that, “Reds seem to draw me in more and more and more over time.” Like Jenny Hibberd, he admits that color may seem like the star of the show, but it’s the combination of colors and contrasting values that makes a painting work. “Value and composition do the work, but color gets the credit,” says Bailey, quoting a well-known painting maxim. He also allow his moods to dictate his palette. “I have spurts of brazon, crazy color, followed by six months of painting in more muted tones,” he says.

Photographer John Gavrilis captures the colors of the natural world with his large format camera and transparency film. The colors in his landscapes are not digitally enhanced, but so captivating and vibrant that viewers often question their veracity. “If you use digital photography and push colors beyond what’s real, you can’t call yourself a nature photographer,” he says. For Gavrilis, the test of his color combinations lies in their truth—they must mirror reality. His photographs demonstrate his love of low light and earthtones--the red-oranges of late afternoon sunlight bathing mountaintops or catching the crest of an ocean wave.

Beth Shields links her use of colors with her changing emotions. “Kind of like a lot of moods in life—sometimes you’re very centered and calm,” she says. At those time, she might paint with a neutral like buff. “Then there are times of more intense emotions,” more appropriate for painting with black and red. Although she was trained in the formal rules of traditional, representational art, when she creates her expressive, abstract works in oil, wax and graphite on canvas, she says her process is intuitive. “Because I work on instinct and emotion, I’m basically trying to bypass the logic portions of the brain. I have days when I’m so at peace with the world and I have days when I’m just the opposite. All these feelings are essential to my authentic self.” The truth of her colors lies in their ability to reflect that authentic self, in all its nuanced and disparate tones.

You can tell by Maggie Renner Hellmann’s exuberantly colored landscapes in oil, that she doesn’t have a favorite color. “I love them all, like a kid when you get the big box of 64 crayons. It give me so much joy just to see all the colors on my palette when I go to paint.” She associates her impressionistic, rainbow approach to painting with her innate sense of optimism. “I tend to be kind of a happy person.”

Making thoughtful color choices and combinations is probably second nature for these seasoned artists. But for the beginning quilter like me, I’m still carrying my sample book into the fabric store and wrestling with what works and why. If when I’m done I can say, “It gives me so much joy just to see all the colors in my quilt,” I’ll know I’ve succeeded.

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