Finding Colour Confidence with Tara Faughnan

Finding Colour Confidence | Tara Faughnan on unexpected harmony with colour value

Welcome back for the third instalment in the Finding Colour Confidence blog series!  Today we’ll be diving deep into the theories around colour and probably throwing in a few ‘loop the loops’, but first let me introduce today’s guest!  Tara Faughnan!

Tara Faughnan
The lovely Tara!

Although, I probably don’t ACTUALLY need to introduce Tara.  If you’re a quilter it’s likely that you’ve come across her work somewhere online or in a magazine, or if you’re lucky, in real life.  Her quilts are bold and appealing, but not in a perfectly coordinated kind of way.  With her clever use of colour, Tara takes you on a never-ending journey across the landscapes of her quilts.  To me, the palettes she chooses give her work a sense of movement and life, and an almost pulsating quality.  It’s probably pretty obvious that I love her creations.  Tara takes the simple and through her colour work makes it complex – and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to get a peek into her colourful brain.

Tara Faughnan's Lone Start Quilt
Lone Start Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

Interview with Tara Faughnan

What is your favourite colour and why?

 It’s magenta!  I find it goes with every color but also adds an interesting element.

You don’t use prints in your quilts, but you also don’t use any fabrics with any colour variation at all.  What is it about prints and colour variation that you don’t like?

I do like prints!  I love seeing prints in other peoples work, just not in my quilts.  It’s just an aesthetic thing.  I like my colors to be flat and bold.  Mottling is distracting to me at this point, though I’ve just started working with denim and I love the variation in the threads in this fabric.  And I really love hand woven fabrics, but I don’t think I could bring myself to ever cut into them to use in a quilt.

Tara Faughnan Pieced Pineburr Quilt
Pieced Pineburr Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

You’ve said that “Colour interaction is the key inspiration that drives me”.  What is it, in that 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 couldn’t really say, it’s a gut reaction.  It probably sounds a bit strange but how I see colors exists outside of my head.  When I put two colors together that I love, it feels like my thoughts expand in a sphere.  Conversely when I put two colors together that I don’t like, everything contracts to a small, snarly cluster.  I never thought about this interesting physical play until I was coming up with a class on color, and I knew I couldn’t teach that!  But in thinking about it, I started to notice what my reaction to color FEELS like, and where in space that color actually can be found.  When I’m looking for the color that is the obvious choice it will be to the right, and when I’m looking for something that will be more unexpected or jarring, it sits to the left.  It definitely has a physical component that’s hard to explain.

But honestly, it has been years of practice and play.  I didn’t start quilt making understanding color, in fact my first quilt was all blue, and I just played with value.  Over the years I’ve worked and worked at using color, and more importantly, I paid attention to how I reacted to color, and how just a small change in hue could make something go from just OK to really exciting.

Tara Faughnan Zig Zag Quilt
Zig Zag Quilt – Image credit: Tara Faughnan

You mention how you “strive to walk the line of discomfort, while still making everything work together as a whole”.  What is it that makes your quilts different to a regular rainbow quilt, or is it purely intuition that tells you when you find the point of harmony and discord?

 The colors in my quilts have nothing to do with order!  When I think of Rainbow quilts there is an obvious harmony to them, but nothing unexpected.  It is the order created naturally, and I love it when I look at a quilt and see something I didn’t expect, be it color or design.

Do you have any exercises that can help with getting past ‘colour block’ and learning to trust your intuition?

 I usually don’t sew my quilt top together until I’ve finished all the components, so I make a lot of bold choices that may not end up being used in the quilt.  I read the best advice when I was starting out making quilts, which is to NOT FEAR wasting fabric.  So I make whatever color combinations I think of and then only at the end do I remove something that’s not working for me, and that block goes in the scrap bin.  Same goes with design ideas – I just sew it to see if it will work, and if it’s not what I want – into the scrap bin!   Also, it really freed me up when I realized one quilt leads to the next, and if you don’t like some aspect in a quilt, it’s fine, as you can just make another and keep learning.  I don’t think a quilt needs to be perfect, and I like the flaws I see in my quilts as I go, and sometimes those “flaws” are my favorite spot to look at.  I try ideas and sometimes they are total failures, and I just move on.  So the only advice I can give is really just to keep going, take risks, and not get stuck on trying to make it perfect.

Tara Faughnan Courthouse Steps Quilt
Courthouse Steps Quilt – Image credit: Tara Faughnan

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?

What I pay attention to from a design point is not so much color as it is value. Really, I think all color palettes are interesting, and there is no one “right” palette for a quilt. I had the honor of being a judge for QuiltCon, and what I noticed after looking at so many quilts so intensely is that I could get into the maker’s shoes no matter what color choices were made. But what made a design really work for me was when the use of value was right on. Using value as the key to defining design was much more impactful than which particular color was used in what spot.

Tara Faughnan Prism Quilt
Prism Quilt – Image credit: Tara Faughnan

You have mentioned previously that trial and error is the best way to learn about colour.  Are there any tools you think are ‘must haves’ to help in this process?

A design wall is key!  It allows you to see the quilt as a whole, rather than just the parts.  My design wall is just a piece of batting I’ve stapled to the wall, so nothing fancy.  I don’t have a ton of wall space , so sometimes I have 2 layers of batting on the wall, each with a quilt in progress.  If you don’t think you have a spare wall, just tack some batting up over anything that’s on the wall.  It might not be the flattest area to work on, but it makes a huge difference to see your quilt that way.

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

Nope, just do it.  And know that there will be quilts that are less than lovely….  Here’s a great quote from Josef Albers:

“Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical…so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity to color.  This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of…art.”

I agree with this completely – the process of making and noticing and learning is invaluable.  When you practice choosing color and making choices you love or regret, then you will start to learn.

Tara Faughnan Double Wedding Ring Quilt
Double Wedding Ring Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

Thank you Tara for your colour insights!  Now, let’s elaborate on a few of the key points from Tara’s interview, starting with…

Colour and harmony

When it comes down to it, the whole aim of colour theory is to create colour combinations that we like.  And this is the definition of colour harmony – to produce a visual combination of colours that is pleasing to the eye.

You know that feeling when you’ve just downed a slice of your favourite cake – and not a ‘piggy’ sized piece, I’m talking more like a ‘Goldilocks’ sized piece – it was juuuuust right?  Well that’s kinda what we’re talking about.  It makes the eye ‘happy’, and as Tara described, it’s a bit of a gut feeling.  {Mmmmm, cake.}

We briefly discussed the basic techniques for combining colours in an harmonious way in part 1 of this series – these colour formulas are complementary, analogous, triadic, split-complementary, tetradic and square.  These are the most straightforward combinations that can be used to develop a pleasing colour palette, and for the novice colour-combiner (that’s a technical term, btw) these are a sure thing.

Finding Colour Confidence with Wife-made

But what about the ‘unexpected’ that Tara mentioned?  How do you combine colours in a way that intrigues people and makes them want more?  Good question!  Let’s look at this a bit more…

In part 1 of this series I mentioned the term ROY G BIV.  In case you have no idea what this means, it stands for the order of the colours or hues in the rainbow, as discovered by Sir Isaac Newton back in the 1600s – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.  And, as Tara mentions, it is the natural order of colour.  So how do you take your colour combination from nothing out of the ordinary/ho-hum to fireworks in my chest/Tara Faughnan WOW?  That’s what I want to know!  So, let’s see if we can unlock this mysterious colour code a bit more…

Tara Faughnan Railroad Crossing Quilt
Railroad Crossing Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

The importance of value

What exactly is value when we’re talking about colour?  Going back to that YouTube video from part 1, value refers to the lightness or darkness of a particular colour (hue) and indicates how much light the colour reflects.  If you add black to a colour you get a shade of the original colour (which is easy to remember, just think about how the shade of a tree is dark), and if you add white to a colour you get a tint of the original colour.  It is also important to understand that colour value is a relative concept, which means that the value of a colour will vary depending on the colour it sits beside.

Another way to think about value is that it allows us to see an image.  If there was no value variation in an image, it would either be pure black or pure white.  Pretty boring, huh!  Take a look at the following images, for example.

The use of value adds depth to what is actually a flat shape and allows the imagery to tell a story beyond what the shapes alone can convey.  From the different values in an image you can see if a surface is flat or undulating.  If it has texture or if it is smooth.  From the images above, if I hadn’t seen the original greyscale image before the black and white image I probably wouldn’t be able to tell what the painting was even about!  While this may be an extreme example, it certainly makes you appreciate how important value is.  Some people will even go as far to say that value is even MORE important than colour choice.

Tara Faughnan Hourglass Quilt
Hourglass Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

Now let’s take a look at Tara’s Hourglass quilt above.  Some sections of the quilt appear to pop out while others look like they’re receding.  This is a result of the use of value.  If all the colours used had the same value, the quilt would appear flat and lifeless, but in this quilt some colours come to the foreground, while others recede into the background.  By simply changing the value of the colours used, the quilt comes to life.  The eye is drawn from one part of the quilt to another and another and another and so on.  By using value you can highlight one section of your quilt while downplaying another.  You can direct attention away from an area while drawing the eye to focus somewhere else.

Value helps keep the eye interested, and helps us to express emotion in the art that we’re creating.  Pretty cool, hey!  I don’t know about you, but I’m learning heaps from this!

“Ok, Xanthe, hold your horses, how do I actually apply this now?”, you’re saying.  I know what you’re saying – you might be able to talk the talk, but can you WALK the talk?  

Tara Faughnan Diamonds Quilt #2
Diamonds Quilt – Image Credit: Tara Faughnan

5 ways to improve your colour value practice

Well, from all my research, these 5 points pretty much sum up how you walk the talk when it comes to understanding and applying colour value in a meaningful and visually appealing way.

1. Practice, practice, practice and then…

Practice some more! Yikes!  That’s a lot of practicing!  {I know. *sad face*}  But unfortunately we’re not all born quilting/colour/value geniuses.  And, apparently neither was Tara {her words!}.  Phew!  That makes me feel a lot better.  As someone whose work I really admire, one of the things I really appreciate from Tara’s interview was her honesty about how it is for her.  It’s not about getting it perfect {I wish I could tell 15yo Xanthe that.  Ok, and maybe past-Xanthe from just the other day… hee hee…}, it’s about giving it a go, and if it doesn’t work, scrap bin it {because it might be right for another project!}, and try again.  Which brings me to point number 2.

2. Use a design wall

A quilt really is greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s all well and good to make one block and be happy with the colour/value combination, but it’s impossible to know how that block will look next to every block that will surround it in the finished quilt.  Remember, colour value is relative! 

Being able to stick your blocks on a wall, step back and look at them from all angles and really just let it percolate for a few days (or weeks, if necessary) has enormous value.

Need some design wall inspo?  Check these out!  Suzy Quilts, Aqua Paisley, Craftsy.

3. Choose a value range and stick to it

Even though it seems incongruent to creative freedom, it’s always helpful to set constraints on a project we’re working on.  The same is true when working with colour palettes and value! 

As a starting point, consider the overall mood or feeling that you want to convey in your design.  Now, set limits on the value range you will use.  You can always make adjustments but this gives you somewhere to begin and sometimes starting is the hardest part!  Read more about this here.

4. Take a photo

So you’ve followed steps 1 to 3, but you’re still not sure if the fabrics you’ve chosen for your quilt have enough value variation…  No worries!  Take a quick photo, convert it to black and white and adjust your fabric choices accordingly.

5. Remember there is no right answer!

How many colours are there in the world?  Scientists say about 10 million.  So that makes for a LOT of colour/value combination options.  Don’t stress over it.  If you like it, use it.  You’ll never find a palette that EVERYONE likes.  {It’s impossible.}  So… Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door! {Wow, those lyrics really fit!}

Tara Faughnan String Star Quilt
String Star Quilt – Image credit: Tara Faughnan

Further reading:

If you would like to continue learning about colour value, here are some resources that I have found helpful.

See you back here in a week for the next episode in this {thrilling} colour extravaganza!

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