If you’re the kind of person who baulks at the word ‘experiment’ because of everything you think the word implies (eg. experimenting = waste of money + waste of time, which also = failure…) and you have no idea what colour saturation has to do with anything, then I really hope today’s guest will help you {and me!} soar past these mental blocks!

Stuart Moores Textiles - Shelagh Jessop
The lovely Shelagh!

Shelagh Jessop is the creative mind behind the beautiful work of Stuart Moores Textiles.  I first stumbled across Shelagh’s work on Instagram and was immediately drawn to her use of colour, as well as the beautiful process shots she shares.

I was amazed to learn that the fabric Shelagh uses in her work is ALL hand-dyed by herself, beginning with just 3 primary colour dye powders!  It then came as no surprise to hear that Shelagh’s great grandfather was a chemical engineer.  Clearly it runs in the family!

So let’s get a bit of a bird’s-eye view of how Shelagh sees colour.

Stuart Moores Textiles - Fields Quilt
Image credit: Stuart Moores Textiles

Interview with Shelagh Jessop of Stuart Moores Textiles

Do you have a favourite colour?  

That is such a hard question for me.  I go through phases of loving certain colours or colour ways, making over everything I wear and my whole house in those colours, and then deciding I love a whole new palette six months later, and going through the whole process all over again.  Over the years, though, I tend to come back to pale pinks and earthy greens over and over again.  In my work I like to use bright and bold magentas as well, so I guess pink coupled with earth tones is my answer…but not princess pink!

You don’t use printed fabrics in your quilts.  Why is this?

Up to this point, I have only used my own hand-dyed fabric for all of my Stuart Moores Textiles projects.  In the past I have used commercially printed fabrics, and growing up I definitely used them all the time, but since I discovered hand dyeing at university, I haven’t used anything else.  I think there are a few reasons for this: first and foremost, I really love the process of hand-dyeing fabric.  Dreaming up new colour ways, experimenting with dyes, and seeing my ideas come to fruition is really exciting for me.

Another part of the process I love are the surprises that happen along the way.  I am not a very precise person and even though I keep notes and do a lot of test runs, if I am out of some dye powder or don’t have enough for a ratio, I will throw in the next best thing and see what happens, and often this is where my new directions come from.   Something else I love about hand-dyed fabric are the really oversaturated colours and the depth that I have found only in hand-dyed fabric.  The subtle inconsistencies across the hand-dyed fabric surface creates a richness that I am addicted to!

How has your experience in dying fabric impacted your understanding, appreciation and use of colour? 

I think the answer to this question goes back again to the dye process.  Because there are a lot of surprises and because of the unpredictable nature of hand-dyeing, I often have a colour for a project that I didn’t anticipate having.  I spend a lot of time in the ‘messing around’ phase for each of my projects, so playing with the colours I have made and experimenting with the unexpected colours teaches me a lot about what is possible (or more simply, what looks good) and I end up learning more and more about colour and colour interaction each time.

Is colour choice an intuitive experience for you, or technical?

It is intuitive all the way.  I do have a colour wheel and I have studied a bit of colour theory but everything I make basically comes down to spending a ton of time experimenting with what I have to work with.

I strongly believe in using restraint as a tool for creativity in each of my projects.  I rely heavily on ‘restraint’ in my improv work and talk a lot about ‘creating restraint’ in the improv tutorial I have available for free on my website. 

I don’t limit myself in the amount of time I will take to experiment.  I will keep at it until the right design and colour combination hits me and…(I don’t know any other way to describe it)…I just feel that it is right at a certain point and I know that I have found what I am looking for (even if I didn’t know what that quite looked like to begin with or even if I started with a completely different design in mind).

What is it, in the moment where you’re putting one colour next to another, that makes you go YES!, or conversely, what is it that makes you go no, that’s not right? 

I wish I knew!  But I definitely have very visceral reactions to different colour combinations.  As I mentioned above, I just know it when I see it, but I also know when I really don’t like something. Sometimes though, I will warm up to a palette.

I have noticed that I do tend to get stuck in certain colour ways and don’t think outside of them until someone or something makes me think otherwise.  I work in a collective design space and more than a few times I have had an improv block or a WIP up on my design wall that I was pretty sure was destined for the bin, but someone will walk past and say they love it and it will force me to have another look (and they are usually right!).  I try to recognise this about myself, getting too comfortable with the same palette for too long, and push myself to explore new colour ways in my work every so often.

How do you choose a colour palette for your designs?

My biggest colour inspirations come from the changing seasons.  There is a time each year when I get really excited about autumn or spring, for example, and I feel very ‘out with the old, in with the new’.  This year it happened on the first warm day here in western France (and it wasn’t even that warm) but I felt an excitement about the prospect of warmer weather, sunshine, and longer days that translated immediately into my work.  I was using very saturated magentas and forest greens and almost overnight all of these heavy hues were set aside in favour of pale, dusty pinks, light browns, and minty, pastel greens.

I get a lot of energy from the changing seasons so I tend to do a lot of my experimenting and creating new work at the beginning of a season and then move on to reproducing that work for a few months and working on computer stuff after I have exhausted all of that ‘new season’ frantic creative energy.  It’s not a system I have set in stone but I have noticed it is the way that I work over the last couple of years.

For me, I have to really want to do something to create work I am happy with.  If I am not feeling something or my mind and heart are in a different place, I allow myself to move on to another project or idea until I am ready to return to something.  This is also the way that a project or a colour way/experiment gets eliminated from my aesthetic.  If my heart isn’t in it anymore, I know that I need to head in another direction, but I never throw anything away because, like I said, I change my mind all the time and also let other people change my mind too!

In your opinion, how does the design of a quilt interact with the colours it’s made in?  How do you know what colours will suit a particular design and what won’t work?

Experimenting!  I do so much experimenting it is probably the reason I will never be rich.  (That was a joke, there are many reasons why I will never be rich! 😉 )

I am so envious of other quilters and artists who can make a sketch and know exactly what they want to make.  I start with an idea in my head and immediately go straight to making it.  I also use the same materials that I want to use for the final project, instead of experimenting with cheaper fabric or commercially dyed fabric, because anything else just won’t work for me.  I need to see the final vision and I need to see the colour interact and come together in a way that I am happy with.  When I make anything, a quilt, a pillow, a table runner, I want to see how the colour is interacting with the object and I really like to see how the object will interact with it’s environment.

For every final project that I end up sharing, there are ten that don’t see daylight.  That is why I have a metric tonne of scraps and unfinished projects that I ship around the world every time we have to move to a new place.  My scrap pile is probably worth it’s weight in gold by this point judging by how many times I have paid for it to be shipped overseas!

Do you have any thoughts for creatives who want to develop their sense and understanding of colour?

I would say experiment like crazy and give yourself some restraints.  Just as people say the journey is the destination, I think the same is true for creating colourful quilts.  Don’t focus too much on the end product being perfect or just what you imagined, let yourself have a lot of colourful disasters and enjoy the process.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with wild ideas and don’t limit yourself to what is currently popular.

There is a great book called ‘Color: A Workshop Approach,’ by David Hornung that I read many years ago that really helped me develop my understanding of color and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take a more technical approach.

Thank you Shelagh!  I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it {immensely} helpful looking at colour through the eyes of other creatives, especially those who use different techniques and approaches to creating than I do.  For example, I would {never} have considered that dying your own fabric would give you a deeper understanding of colour saturation.  But now that I think about it, it’s probably kinda obvious, so I’m just going to thank Shelagh for her creative investigations and use that to broaden my own understanding without having to get my hands quite as dirty as I’m pretty sure Shelagh’s get when she’s elbow deep in a dye bath!

So let’s unpack our colour saturation bags a little…

Colour saturation

Some words used to describe colour saturation include:

  • intensity
  • purity
  • brilliance
  • vividness.

Another word used to describe colour saturation is:

  • chroma.

Say whaaaaaaat?

Ok, let’s chuck that {less understandable for the average sleep-deprived mother} word out the plane escape hatch and ponder on those other words I mentioned above…  intensity, purity, brilliance, vividness…

Still pondering… 

What comes to mind when you think of those words?  For me, when I think of the word {vivid} of think of a clear blue sky – the kind when there’s not a cloud in sight… it’s pure, intense, brilliant… can you picture it?

These words give us a pretty good idea of what saturation means.

But, ‘let’s get technical, technical, I wanna get technical’ for a moment…  

Technically speaking, the saturation of a colour refers to the dominance of hue in a colour.  A colour that is pure is considered fully saturated.  It is bright and alive and vibrant!  Take a look at the photo of Shelagh’s quilt, below.  The colour of the sky, the boat and the quilt are all very saturated.  They pack a real punch and stop you in your tracks!

In comparison, a colour that is desaturated is washed out.  You create a desaturated colour by adding white, grey, black (think about your editing software’s colour picker!) or the pure colour’s complement. 

The level of desaturation depends on how much of that other colour you add.  Just adding a touch of grey? Then it might be 97% saturation.  Adding a huge blob of black?  Then it might be 9% saturation. 

Get it?

You might say desaturated colour is dull and lifeless, BUT desaturation might also make an image soft and express a soothing, gentle feeling, like in this tulip photo, below.  The pure colours in this image have white added to them to make pastels.  The greens at the bottom have grey or black added to them to create shadow.

How to use colour saturation in your work

Using colour saturation in our work is really very simple.

As we saw in the photo of the boat above, colour saturation can used to make a statement.  In compositions that include both high and low levels of saturation, the highly saturated colours wave their arms and yell, “Look at me!  Look at me!” – they draw the eye to a particular place.

Anna Maria Horner talks about the use of bright colours in her ‘Creating Colour Palettes’ CreativeBug class and how important it is to incorporate ‘muddy’ colours into your quilt’s colour palette in order to be able to {see} the bright colours.  She compares it to the lead and supporting roles in a movie – we can’t all be the movie star {the saturated colours}, someone has to play the supporting role {the desaturated colours}!

We can see a practical application of Anna Maria’s movie role idea with the addition of  the pink, mustard and blue centres in Shelagh’s beautiful Starburst appliqué design, below.  {Not to mention those bright macarons!}  In this quilt, the background of the soft, muted pink plays the supporting role.  It’s like the movie extras that you see, but don’t see.  You know they’re there, and they need to be there, but if they’re doing their job properly they don’t stand out.

The pink, blue and mustard centres are the lead roles {and I’m pretty sure that pink is a diva!}.  The three colours say “Look at me!”.  The first place the eye goes is to the pink, and then the mustard and then the blue, because there is variation in the highly saturated colours as well.

Now imagine if every part of Shelagh’s quilt was made with highly saturated colours like that pink?  The eye wouldn’t have a place to rest – it would tire quickly and the quilt wouldn’t be as enjoyable to look at.  It would be exhausting!  Similarly, if the quilt only contained desaturated colours like in the background and the top right Starburst centre, the quilt would be boring with nothing to draw the eye and you would quickly lose interest.

Finding Colour Confidence with Wife-made

Saturation can also be used to convey emotion and mood in a composition.  As an example, imagine a piece that holds a palette of a variation of highly unsaturated colours – like greys, deep blues and purples – that is punctuated with highly saturated, vibrant reds.  The unsaturated colours might convey moodiness, depth, darkness while the pops of saturated colours might express explosive outbursts of anger or confrontation.  Get it? 

So that’s colour saturation in a nutshell!  So much more to colour than picking your favourites, right!?

Let me know how you are using colour saturation in your projects, and how experimenting with colour has broadened your understanding of it.  Do you have any tips about using colour that you might like to share with other readers?  

You can follow along with Shelagh’s creative journey on Instagram @stuartmoorestextiles or on her website.

Further Reading…

I really recommend Anna Maria’s CreativeBug class if you’re interested in learning more about choosing colour palettes for your quilt.  She talks about multicoloured prints and how to work with them in your colour palette, as well as providing a no-fail process for choosing a quilt colour palette.  {CreativeBug is not even paying me to say this.  It’s just good.}

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