Color Theory 101 with Sew Happy Color’s Katie Kortman

MAR 12, 2020 updated Apr 27, 2021
Color Theory 101 | Spoonflower Blog

Whether you’re a designer, sewist, quilter, crafter or simply someone who gets dressed every day, adding a pop of color into your routine can be all it takes to brighten your day. From monochromatic to complementary color palettes, Spoonflower designer and Sew Happy Color creator Katie Kortman is here to help show you how to incorporate a little (or a lot!) of color into your life with her mini course on Color Theory 101. Class is now in session!

Hello, fellow color lovers! I am excited to be here today to teach you a little bit about color theory. Over the past two years I have run a fun color challenge on Instagram called Sew Happy Color—and now Wear Happy Color as well—which encourages participants to look at their wardrobe with new eyes. Each week I feature a different color scheme challenge, and everyone posts photos wearing those colors—you can see what everyone is wearing here! It is a LOT of fun, and I love hearing how wearing more color affects everyone’s moods and happiness (I get lots of messages about it). 

I have written a digital guidebook on wearing color, which can be found here, but today I will give you all a brief lesson on Color Theory 101.

The Color Wheel

Color Theory 101 | Spoonflower Blog

The color wheel is what we use to see the relationships between colors. 

Here are some color wheels I created with paint chips. First, we have a wheel with the primary and secondary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, and all other colors are made with these three colors (not digitally, but that’s a whole other thing)! The secondary colors are orange, green and violet and they are each made by combining two primaries. 

This second color wheel shows more tertiary colors (the colors in between the primary and secondary colors, such as blue-green and red-violet) and light and dark versions of some of the colors as well. 

Color wheels always show color in their most saturated form. I know this doesn’t appeal to everyone, so I made an example of a color wheel with lightened or muted versions of all the colors. I want you to see how you can take the same principles and make color schemes with those as well! 

Now that we know a little about the color wheel, let’s talk about the color schemes we can create using the color wheel.

Monochromatic

Color Theory 101-monochromatic | Spoonflower Blog
Featured designs: Inverted Commas, Orange Peach Dash, Camouflage Cats, Lilac Fibonacci, Tropical Geometry

Monochromatic is when you have one color. You can still have a monochrome color scheme when you pair it with the tints (lighter versions) and shades (darker versions) of that color as well. The prints above are great examples of this color scheme! When you are designing a print, challenge yourself to see if you can make something interesting with a limited monochrome palette like designers did in the Classic Blue Monochrome Design Challenge. And if you are a sewist, quilter or crafter looking for monochromatic prints, just put monochromatic in the search bar and then filter the color on the left side of your page. I found lots of great designs when searching for yellow monochromatic on Spoonflower.

Analogous

Color Theory 101 - analogous | Spoonflower Blog
Featured designs: Pangram Typewriter, Houndstooth, Watercolor Violet Roses, Etosha Leopard

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. They share a primary color in common, so they look good together and are easy on the eyes. This is always a “safe” color palette to go with when designing a print, and is easy to pair with other fabrics when sewing.

Color Theory 101 - analogous | Spoonflower Blog
Color Theory 101 - analogous | Spoonflower Blog
Color Theory 101 - analogous | Spoonflower Blog
An analogous color palette in the wild! Featured patterns: Cielo Top by Closet Case Patterns and the Free Range Slacks by Sew House 7

Complementary

Color Theory 101 - complementary | Spoonflower Blog
Featured designs: Tropical Blue and Orange, Alligators, Citymap Grid, Scales, Chevron with Textures, Purple Geode, Leaves Baninque

Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. The word “complementary” would make you think otherwise, am I right? But it means they are actually completely different from one another: Red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet (and then the tertiary opposites like blue-green and red-orange) are a few color combos. Because opposite colors are so different, sometimes it’s nice to pair a color with the muted, or lighter version of its complement, like this pink and green leaf print

Complementary color palette | Spoonflower Blog

Pro tip: Use this palette for bold garments, quilts and crafts that are sure to catch someone’s attention!

Split-Complementary and Faux Split-Complementary 

Split-Complementary and Faux Split-Complementary palette | Spoonflower Blog

A true Split-Complementary color scheme is one color plus the two colors on either side of its opposite/complement. Let’s take the color green for example. The opposite of green is red (its complement), but the split-complements would be red-violet and red-orange. This is easy to do when you are designing a print, but sometimes harder to do when you are getting dressed. I therefore came up with an “easier” version which I call Faux Split-Complementary and I tend to use it a lot more.

Color Theory 101 - complementary | Spoonflower Blog
Featured designs: School of Fish, Fiesta Sangria, Bird of Paradise, Muted Stripes

These are examples of the faux split and you may notice they don’t actually split. I take a set of analogous colors and pick the opposite of one of them, any of them. As it turns out, that is what a lot of Spoonflower designers do too. I couldn’t find any true split-complementary colored prints during my search (though I’m sure there are some in the Spoonflower Marketplace!), but I did find some faux-split examples! The reason I like this scheme is that it has the nice, easy-on-the eyes quality of the analogous colors and then the POP of one opposite color. Try this one out and see if you like it too!

Split-Complementary and Faux Split-Complementary | Spoonflower Blog
Color Theory 101 - split - complementary | Spoonflower Blog
David Bowie meets Katie Kortman meets a Faux Split-Complementary color palette! Featured design: Feathers in Paradise

There are other color schemes out there that you can make using the color wheel, but these are my personal favorites and most used. Red, yellow and blue make a “triad” and that is another color scheme worth exploring if you want more. I hope this post will have you looking at the world with new eyes, searching to see these color schemes around you. And I hope you try some of them out for yourself! If you want to explore color more in your wardrobe, don’t forget to check out my new digital guidebook and come join #sewhappycolor2020 and #wearhappycolor2020 over on Instagram! 

Inspired to add a little color into your wardrobe or home? Shop Katie’s curated Happy Color Month collection on fabric, wallpaper and home decor.


About the Guest Author


Katie Kortman is a sewist, artist, and self-proclaimed dancing queen. Over the years she has sold her artwork in galleries, worked as a display artist for Anthropologie, taught high school art, had a handmade accessories company called Blue-Eyed Freckle, and mothered her four children.

Katie enjoys combining her passions into one by using her artwork to design fabric on Spoonflower, that she can then sew up into clothing (and DANCE). She blogs at katiekortman.com and over on Instagram you can find her @katiekortmanart where she dances around in her handmade wardrobe.

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  • This so great! I love colors, but have to admit I didn’t know anything about colors haha. I just grab colorful prints, fabric, clothes and wear them. Never thinking if they go with each other, nor complementary or anything. Now it is a whole new world opened to me. Although, I don’t appreciate Katie making me think at the time of dressing up hahahahah. I think for a living! Hehehe Love you hun!

  • Thanks for including my Pangram Typewriters print, Katie! Excellent post–right in your (color)wheelhouse! 😉