The Anatomy of Color

Last week we talked on how humans have an innate sense of color, but that is largely subconscious and accessed via loose feelings. Let’s build on that subconscious foundation with a bit of conscious knowledge… the anatomy of color! By breaking down a color into its defining parts, we can easily understand how to use color effectively and this works and that doesn’t. So, let's get started by looking into the three defining parts of a color: Hue, Saturation, and Lightness.


Hue refers to the specific color of an object, and it is determined by the wavelength of light reflected by that object. In simpler terms, it is the color that we see. Hue is typically described with words like "red," "blue," "green," and so on. Hue carries the lion’s share of emotional and psychological impact on the viewer, so be sure to experiment and have fun with it! Next week’s blog will be all about playing hues off of each other with color harmonies, really cool stuff.


Saturation, also known as intensity, refers to the purity or strength of a color. In simple terms the more saturated a color is the more colorful it is. Highly saturated colors tend to feel bold, energetic, or lively. Desaturated colors become more grey or neutral, these can feel relaxing, restful, or subdued. Ideally a quilt will use a mix of both saturated and desaturated colors, but there is a place for every style!


Lightness, also known as value or brightness, refers to how light or dark a color appears. Full lightness is white while none would be black. Lightness has maybe the greatest effect on your quilt’s design and balance. Darker colors can feel heavier, lighter colors… well, lighter. How you place lights and darks in relation to each other can make a quilt feel stable and balanced, or dynamic with a sense of movement!

To see how these components interact with each other, check out There are a couple sliders corresponding to Hue, Saturation, and Lightness that will show you how the colors interact. It even goes further with shades, tints, and color harmonies for created color. We’ll be getting into that last one next week.

Now, this is probably a good time to talk about neutrals. Neutral colors are colors where the hue is only mildly apparent, or not apparent at all. This can be because the hue is diminished by low saturation (grey, cream), overwhelmed by extremes of lightness (Black/white), or a bit of both (brown).

Because hue is less dominate in neutrals, the names we give them (say, grey or brown) tend to cover many different hues. However, even when it is hard to consciously tell which hue a neutral is, it still matters! Think about how one cream may look great in a quilt, while another similar looking cream in the same quilt may seem off putting or even sickly! Or think about how hard it can be to match greys – that’s because you’ve got green-greys, blue-greys, purple-greys, etc.

Please note that neutrals, like pretty much anything dealing with color, are relative and contextual. A mild blue may read as an obvious blue when surrounded by creams but may act as a neutral when surrounded by a more vibrant set of colors.

So, when using neutrals pay attention to the hue. If you can’t tell which hue it is, that’s okay, just audition it with the other fabrics you are planning to use. For now, just go with that gut emotional feeling. Does the grey feel good? Then use it. Does the brown feel off? Then just try other browns until one feels right. In our next blog we’ll give you a method that will make finding compatible hues much easier. Of course, as with anything else, this all gets easier with practice.

Remember, finding compatible hues and creating a cohesive color scheme takes practice, so don't be afraid to experiment and trust your gut instincts. In the next blog post, we'll dive into color harmonies and learn how to play hues off of each other for even more exciting and dynamic quilt designs. See you then!

Written by Staff Member/Artist Chris

Happy Colorful Stitching from Bluebird Janet’s blog!