Dye Color Theory Part 2

  • Rob Colon

In the last post in this Dye Color Theory series, we talked about basic color theory and ended on a discussion about diluting (tinting) or darkening (shading) colors. While adding black is the easiest way to create a darker version of a dye, it can be a bit tricky with acid dyes, as most acid dye blacks lean cool and add blue to colors that you might want to create a semi-neutral for. To get deeper into that, we need to understand what semi neutrals are. 

A semi-neutral is a color that lies within the transition of one color to another. These colors have nuance and depth and serve to highlight bright, true colors. When you add a semi-neutral to a palette for a single skein, it allows the brighter, true colors to pop. Semi neutrals also occur accidentally when layering color–more on that in a bit. Here are a few examples of semi neutral transitions:

Notice how the first two blues to oranges look kind of like soft teals and duck-egg blues? Or how a red-orange is created by adding a little green, or a mustard by adding a little more green to the red? If you took these color transitions and moved them further out, with more colors in between, and included adding a little black, you’d see even more color opportunities! 

Color theory comes into play in really practical ways when planning a colorway to dye. Let’s start with an inspiration photo from Unsplash:

The primary colors in this photo are purple and green, right? So we’ve created a semi-neutral transition line using those: 

But if we look closer at this picture and pull out other colors we see, you can tell that this photo’s depth is created by not just tints and shades of purple and green, and not just by semi-neutrals created by purple and green, but the addition of a few more colors: 

If we wanted to capture the look of this painting, we’d want to include those too, right? So we’d think about how those will layer with the others. Some layering experiments are easy to think about: if we have a green section of our skein, it would be easy to layer in that mustard yellow and add some nuance there, because those colors are analagous: they blend well together. Likewise, if some of that soft pink touches the soft purple, they’ll also blend well together. But what about if any of that pale yellow layers over the purple? 

Yeah. That might look a little like mud if it’s not applied in just the right way. Thinking about how your colors touch each other in the dye bath, on the skein, and in the final knitted object is an important element to planning your colorways and often separates good dyers from the best dyers. Experiment with layering tints, shades and semi-neutrals for endless color possibilities!