Why Do We Love Complementary Colors?


Color choices in weaving -- choosing from the untold number of hues in the yarns and dyes available to us -- are among the most valuable decisions we make as weavers. Color can transform a well-known, often repeated weave structure and turn it into something interesting, illuminating, even heartening. 

For an example, take a look at the photo above: It's a simple turned twill on 8 shafts, woven with a hand-painted 5/2 Tencel weft on a hand-pained 60/2 silk  warp. To me, the glow of the yarns, combining an electric blue and a coppery orange, makes for a visually appealing fabric. Nothing fancy going on here, really, just a juxtaposition of complementaries.

It's amazing to me how complementary colors -- those that lie across from each other on the color wheel -- have such immense appeal to our eyes and spirits.



Farbkreis by Johannes Itten, 1961

Nature understands this, of course. 


Leaves of green and magenta


Blues and rose-golds of a sunset


Rose bushes with pink and green

Why are these combinations so beautiful? Science tells us it has to do with the photoreceptor cells in our eyes -- the rods and cones that interpret color for our brains. Rods can detect light and dark, while cones detect colors. And it seems that, if these receptors become overstimulated, they seek to return to normalcy. 

We all know about the after-image effect: When you stare at a bright color for a while and then look away, you will see a ghost image of its complement on the color wheel.


Stare for a few seconds at the green geese on a red background, then look away. 
You will see an after-image of geese in magenta on a blue background.

It's as if our eyes seek balance, as if a marriage of opposites is soothing to our senses. Our eyes look for harmony. At least that's my interpretation. 

So what does this mean for our weaving choices? It all depends, of course, on which technique we are using, what effects we seek and what color combinations we ourselves enjoy, as everyone's rods and cones are different. 

But if I can speak for one technique -- that of choosing warp colors for Echo threadings, where you're threading your loom in two or more alternating colors -- I've come to the conclusion that complementary colors in a warp can produce unexpected and beautiful results in the fabric. It depends greatly on the weft, of course, as it so often does. Here are a few examples, from workshops I've taught.

Most recently, Anne Benson of North Carolina chose these two colors for a workshop I'm teaching, "One Warp, Many Structures: An Exploration of Extended Parallel Threading." 


If you go back to Itten's color wheel, you'll see that these are complementaries: a cherry red and a lime green. And taken at face value, most folks would say that this is an unlikely combination, right? Well, I heartily endorsed her colors for this workshop because I've seen what happens when you start to weave. And here's what happened, using a teal-blue weft.


The fabric now has a softer, more nuanced and very lovely palette, with the chartreuse becoming turquoise and the red becoming magenta. In my view, that's because the teal weft shifts and unites the two complementaries in the warp, serving as a sort of mediator and bringing the opposing colors into harmony, visually speaking. 

Here's another endorsement for using complementary colors in your weaving. In this case, the complements are one of the warp yarns and the weft.

Sample by Sandra Schulz, 4 shafts based on "Blooming Leaf" pattern

Blue and orange working together once again, where a warm red in the warp (what I'm loosely calling orange) works to with the light blue in the weft (which looks almost textured in this photo) to make it seem to pop and glow.

And let me take this one step further, to show you a sample I wove on four shafts using four seemingly discordant colors in the warp.


This is a 4-end parallel threading on 4 shafts.

Here, the four colors in the warp are red, orange, chartreuse and turquoise: two sets of complementary colors (red/chartreuse and turquoise/orange). I'm guessing the weft is a bronze color, which is again a sort of "mediator" among the four, in a medium value and a fairly unsaturated hue.

I don't always practice what I preach, however, which is urging weavers to choose colors out of their comfort zone, understanding that the weft can make such a difference. What happens when I don't follow my own advice?

A fabric like this, which has an attractive pattern (in Echo on 16 shafts) -- but one that is hard to see because the colors are too close in hue and value. The warp colors are royal blue and aqua and the weft is black, if I recall correctly.

Nice, in my opinion, but no cigar

Right now I'm planning an inaugural piece for my new (to me) 32-shaft Megado. I've designed a 32-shaft extended-parallel-threading pattern in two warp colors.

Detail of 32-shaft pattern in Jin

You can't tell, but the warp colors in this drawdown are royal blue and aqua -- the same colors I used for the not-as-successful piece in the prior photo. The weft is a red/orange color, a complement to the warp colors, which makes it work. 

I originally planned to go with these two colors for my warp.


These are what you call "analogous colors," meaning that they are near each other on the color wheel. And yes, they will work for an Echo design -- but I'm thinking that, based on my recent experience, they won't create an exciting design, even when woven with a complementary color in the warp. It's a safe choice, you might say.

So I decided to take my own advice and make my warp-color choices by thinking out of the crayon box. And here's what I'm using.


Colors of a sunset, way out of my comfort zone...

I will keep you apprised, hopefully in my next blog post. Thanks for reading!





























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