Ask Jinny!

How Can I Better Choose Colors for a Quilt?

  • Sometimes I get inspired by the colors I see on a walk or on a piece of artwork. But I find it really hard to choose fabrics that capture the same look.  How do you do it?

    A Quilter from Chautauqua

Jinny's Answer

  • Here's the inspiration photo.  On the right is the color palette automatically created by Photoshop.  On the left is the final color palette I used in creating the fabrics.

    This is a question I hear a lot when I'm meeting with or teaching quilters. Of course, there's no substitute for "training your eye" by simply practicing.  And you do need to have a wide variety of fabrics to choose from.  (See! Another reason to buy more fabric!)

    However, there is one technique that I use all the time -- and I used it when designing my Summer Lily quilt and fabric collection. What's the secret? I use Adobe Photoshop to create a "palette" of the colors used in a image that I like. If you have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements you can do the same thing.  If you don't have either of those programs, you can still create a palette using your printer and some scissors or a rotary cutter! Here's how:

    Using Photoshop
    Open an image you like in Photoshop. (This also works in Photoshop Elements but the steps might be just a little bit different.). From the menu, select Image-Mode-Indexed Color. In the pop-up box, I usually select 256 colors, but you can choose fewer as well.  Set the other options as shown in the image.

    Next, select Image-Mode Color Table. Photoshop will automatically choose and display a grid with he number of colors you selected. (You can make a copy of this color chart to print by pressing the Print-Screen button on your computer, creating a new Photoshop file, and pasting into the new file,  Then crop or size the color chart as you like.)

    Using Paper & Scissors
    If you don't have Photoshop or a program with similar features, I suggest you try this:  print out the photo in a very large size -- 11" x 17" or similar.  You can use the "tile" function on your home printer if it has one or take your photo to the local copy shop and have them enlarge it.  (There's no need to print on photo paper, but a glossy or premium paper is nice.) Now, cut your photo into squares -- 1" squares are often a good size. Now, it's time to sort your little color swatches into color families, throwing away swatches that may have too many colors mixed in.

    From this point, I generally winnow down the color chart, eliminating shades that are very similar, etc.

    One of the advantages of starting with an image is that you will get many shades of the same color.  For example, most of us would describe the lily in the photo as pink and orange.  But just look at all the shades of pink, yellow, orange, red and more that the computer found. And this is very important when you select your fabric -- be sure to use many fabrics that are slightly different shades of the same color.  When I designed the Summer Lily quilt to feature fabrics from the collection of the same name, I was also careful to include some soft taupes and very darks to provide highlights and contrast to the bright fabrics of the quilt.

    If you'd l ike to know more about my color philosophy, I prepared a short video with The Quilt Show that I think you would enjoy.  You can find the video from the Tips & Lessons section of my website at Jinny's Color Philosophy.