A key element to how I view information is a concept that my friends and I have dubbed, TSTA.    Theory- Strategy-Tactics-Application

Theory–  Everything you know about a subject.  The depth of your knowledge directly impacts the range of tools that you have at your disposal when confronting a problem.

Strategy–  The act of analyzing that knowledge to determine which elements are pertinent to the problem you currently face.

Tactics–  Using this pertinent information to establish a structural approach to physically solving the problem.

Application–  Actually solving the problem in the physical world.  Often this requires developing both physical and mental skills, adapting as you go.

I also use the SciFi writer Gordon R. Dickson’s definition of the difference between a Scholar and an Expert.   

An Expert is a person whose experiences within a given field have given them a very specific perspective on that field.   The value of an Expert within an academic environment is that they can help students understand specific ways in which their knowledge may be applied to problems within a field.   Experts are often very good at the Application side of the TSTA model.  But they may have difficulty explaining why they do what they do.  They will often struggle helping students acquire foundational information and their expertise may be limited to the narrow bands of their own experience.   Experts provide context.

A Scholar is a person who sets out to learn as much about a given field as they can.  Within an academic environment the Scholars help to lay foundations and draw linkages between the various pieces of apparently disparate information.   They can help students build the foundations that will establish how far a student can go within their career.  Scholars tend to focus on the Theory and Strategy components of the equation.   Unfortunately, depending on the Scholar, they can also live with their head in the clouds.  These scholars are typically referred to as Ivory Tower academics.  They have no understanding of Tactics or Application.   And in the worse case scenario can be oblivious to how someone may choose to use their knowledge.

My personal goal as a teacher is to always help students to develop into both Scholars and Experts. 

Which leads to the next question, what has any of this got to do with knitting?   As I have been recently reviewing the textbook Color and Fiber, I am reminded of a key component of scholarship.  Often some of the best ideas are embedded in source materials that are inconsistent.  A good idea will often be nestled into a series of comments or arguments that are patent drivel.  Part of being a good scholar is learning not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Just because a source is inconsistent doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain gems of wisdom.  Too often in my career I have seen students, professionals and colleagues who expect information to come in nice, tidy bundles.    Most people approach any new information with a healthy dose of skepticism.  But sometimes they forget to approach skeptical information with a sense of hope.

This particular textbook is laced with wonderful information.  Some of it is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t address the biological aspect of color, but that doesn’t mean that it is useless.  Far from it.  The book is a gold mine of ideas that simply need to have a biological context added to them. 

When I first began researching how the human brain and eyes work, I found myself having to read through original doctoral theses.   Many of them contained single pieces of information that I needed to help me grasp what was happening.  But without those single pieces, I wouldn’t have been able to piece together the understanding that I now have.  If I had waited for the information to be cataloged or presented in layman’s terms I may have had to wait years if not decades.    The Theoretical and Strategic elements of what I now know are priceless tools that I use daily as I design my knitted garments.

The breadth of our scholarly knowledge also acts as a fulcrum to help us pry out valuable material from piles of intellectual scrap iron.  Without my underlying knowledge I would be much more confused by the apparent inconsistencies within the material that I am currently reading.  Knowing where a source is inconsistent helps make the accurate pieces make sense.

Additional Color Vocabulary terms spawned from my reading of the text, Color and Fiber.

Overtones and Undertones– Whenever you mix two primary hues together you get a secondary hue. In each of these secondary hues, one of it’s parent primaries is dominant and one primary is subordinate. The dominant primary is called an Overtone and the subordinate primary is called an Undertone. The Undertone provides a flavoring to the new hue and significantly impacts how it interacts with other hues in color relationships.  The Overtone provides the hue with it’s name.  For example a bluish red has a red Overtone and a blue Undertone

Learning to see the Undertone is a critical skill for an artist, because most colorants do not yield pure hues, but instead hues with Overtones and Undertones.   This is even true within the primaries themselves.  When you look at the red yarns within a given yarn company’s palette, you will notice that the reds have a variety of undertones.  Some push toward orange and some push toward purple.  Even within the reds that we would call simply red, there are undertones.  We often talk about these relationships in terms of a hue’s temperature. Is it a warm red or a cool red? Does it have an undertone of yellow (warm) or an undertone of blue (cool)? 

When working with colorants, an effective way of understanding a hue’s undertone is to tint the hue. (Remember tinting means to raise the hue’s relative luminance or value, usually by adding white to the mix.) As a hue is tinted, it’s undertone becomes more apparent.   The result is a progression that subtly shifts hue toward the undertone hue as it gets lighter.  These progressions can be very valuable when designing color relationships into your knitting.    But it’s also important because the exercise of physically lightening the value trains your mind to see hue and hue relationships.   Three of the hardest steps in learning to see color are learning to spot undertones;  learning to see the overtones in tints and shades; and learning to see the hues in chromatic greys, particularly shades and tints of chromatic greys. 

Honing these skills increases your understanding of how colors relate,  your ability to manipulate color progressions and how to mix colorants to create the colors you want.  Ever add black paint to yellow and ended up with a pea green?  The black paint had an overtone of blue that was hidden in the shade.  Ever looked at Titanium or Zinc White next to Lead White?  The titanium and zinc whites are safer to use, but they are also both cool whites with overtones of blue.  Lead white is a warm white.  Old painters jealously hoarde their Lead white for this reason.

Major and Minor Keys –  One of my favorite elements in the Color and Fiber text has been the terminology that they use to describe key relationships.  Here is their basic vocabulary relative to key.

        1.  Major Key–  A composition with high contrast value relationships.  These compositions span the complete value range from Black to White.    Most major keys have a dominant value and this dominance can be described using the terms High, Mid and Low.  In a High Major Key, white is the dominant value and medium greys and black are subordinate.  In Mid Major Key, grey is dominant with white and black in the subordinate roles.   And in Low Major Key, dark values dominate and the lighter greys and white are accents.

     2.  Minor Keys –  Minor Keys are compositions with low overall contrast relationships.  These can be High Minor (whites and tints), Mid Minor (mid value greys)  or Low Minor (shades and blacks). 

This is a particularly effective tool for describing how key is used in composition and I will be using it from here forward in my discussions.  

One thing to remember is that due to the way in which our brains process value relationships, Minor Key compositions can show subtle value relationships that will be suppressed by your brain in Major Key compositions.   The contrast threshold is established by the overall range of values present.  The narrower the overall range, the more we will be able to distinguish close value relationships. 

The scale of the composition also matters.  The larger a given surface is, the more we may be able to create areas of Minor Key within an overall Major Key.   In textiles this comes into play when dealing with architectural textiles.  Objects like rugs or wall hangings have very large surfaces and can be subdivided into areas of minor key within a major key framework.    The reason that this works is that we change the distance we view these objects from.  Sometimes they are seen up close and sometimes they are seen from distance.  The Major Key elements dominate from a distance.  The Minor Key elements become apparent as we get close.  You can use the same tactic with garments, but the Major Key elements will have more dominance because no matter how closely we view a garment, the distances between the areas of high contrast are generally apparent.   By the way, this is also true when addressing issues of motif complexity.  The small complex elements of a motif design work best when they are supported by a framework of large design elements.

Of course making the distinction between Light as a physical phenomenon and Color as the human perception of light for specific goals begs the question, which parts of the physics of light are most germain to knitters and our craft?

From my vantage, I would say that there are two basic things about the physics that are valuable to a knitter.

1.  Physics governs much of how light interacts with surfaces.  Since the yarn we use is a surface, understanding how the light is bouncing off of  and being absorbed by that surface is relevant.   This is the physics of colorants.  A colorant is a material such as a pigment or a dye that absorbs some light and reflects some light. 

2.  Not all color experiences are caused by colorants within a surface.  Some color effects are caused by physical interactions such as refraction or diffraction.  Examples of this include lustre, irridescence and opalescence.

Most knitters don’t need a detailed description of any of this.  The yarns we use come to us already colored and relatively few yarns have components that lend structural color.  And even when they do, the yarn is already manufactured.  We are simply playing with the biological perception, not manipulating the physics.

Spinners and those who wish to explore dyeing require a bit more knowledge, particularly relative to subtractive color.

The reason that it is valuable to understand structural lighting effects is when you want to create an illusion that emulates them using colorant based surfaces. Knowing how to create an illusion of irridescence is far more valuable to a knitter than knowing how to actually create irridescence.

A friend of mine from Ravelry recently referred me to a traditional college textbook called Color and Fiber by Lambert, Staepelaere & Fry.   I’ve begun to read the book and I’m impressed by the thorough job it does describing and defining certain aspects of color and light.  I particularly like the discussions of Structural light phenomena and how lighting sources are rated in degrees Kelvin.   Their definition of value is also very nice.

But I noticed a key fundamental problem with the text.  It fails to clearly distiguish between light and color.  Light is a physical phenomenon.  It is governed directly by the laws of physics and as such can be defined in absolute terms.  Color is the human perception and processing of light information for specific goals.  Color doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds.  It is a complex, multi-step processing of light information.  It is always relative and comparative and cannot be defined in the same absolute terms as light.  Light can be measured with instruments and quantified.   Because color is a perception, our experience of a color will often be different than the readings we get from the light that provides the foundation for the experience.  A light meter will register the value of reflection coming off of a surface.  But our perception of that value is totally dependent on the other values that surround it rather than the actual value itself.  Our brains will amplify or suppress the value relationships to meet the needs of our understanding and survival.

In order for an artist to understand how to manipulate color in their work, they need to be very clear about this distinction.  It is important for an artist to understand the physics of light to truly understand color.  But the physics of light need to be placed into the context of our perception rather than the other way around.  It is the perception of the light that has the most impact on the success or failure of our work, not the way that light is interacting with a surface.  This is because the the perception is the more variable element.

One of the biggest challenges of traditional stranded color knitting for me is its tendency to create horizontal stripes in the final garment.    I am particularly interested in this because horizontal stripes aren’t flattering for many bodytypes.   I don’t want to feel like a walrus stuffed into a tube sock.  And I really don’t want to have a series of horizontal cross contour lines accentuating my love handles.    Think about it.  How many horizontal cable patterns do you know of?  Cables add verticallity and structural dimension to a garment.   Perhaps we can apply some of the same concepts to stranded color work.  I’ve been working on a couple of concepts to disrupt this horizontal striping tendency. 

The first thing that I have been doing is to create interleaved design motifs.  Taking traditional peerie and border motifs and examining where they can be offset and then mitered together like dovetail joints.   (As I write this, I realize that traditional dovetail joinery may be an excellent inspirational source for knit wear motifs.  How cool would it be to create men’s garments that had the look of dovetail joinery built into them?)  By interlocking the motifs some of the horizontal qualities are reduced without having to reinvent the wheel.

A second idea is to accentuate the verticality of a motif design.    This is accomplished in two ways.  The first is to dramatically increase the height to width ratio.   In most knitting motifs the horizontal aspect ratio is dominant or equal to the vertical aspect.   By changing this to accentuate the verticality, the design is less horizontal.  The second way to design motifs that take into consideration the entire length of a garment.  On some levels a more complicated design problem.  Right now I am working on a scarf motif that is roughly 800 rows tall.  But the reward is a very different feel to the garment.  A fringe benefit of this process is that I can significantly reduce the width and consequently the float lengths within my designs.

But motif design is only part of the problem.  Each new color of yarn is added as a horizontal band.   Certainly a garment can be knit sideways.  But this creates its own headaches.  I know of a beautiful scarf pattern that has ~450 linen stitches per row.  The results are gorgeous but the act of knitting it is it’s own form of torture.   Instead I’ve been working with two different concepts to break the color banding.  The first is to use subtle gradations of heathered color.  The more subtle the transition, the more dominant the motif becomes.  The second is to add third colors within rows.  I’ve settled on using Swiss Darning (aka Duplicate Stitch) to add these colors.  These colors can be dropped into rows above and below a color band to vertically draw the eye beyond the actual horizontal edge where a color was knit into the garment.

Color Vocabulary

Some friends asked me to include a basic glossary of color vocabulary for those knitters who aren’t as familiar with the terms.

Color terminology can be particularly slippery because we are using words to describe something that is inherently nonverbal., It’s important that anyone reading this blog understands how I am defining the terms that I use.  I once watched a group of very skilled artists rip itself apart in a single weekend arguing over the color scheme they wanted for their project.  The sad thing was that when I sorted out the argument, they all had wanted the exact same thing, but were using different terms to describe it.   Here are some of the terms that I am using and what they mean.

For now I am going to simply define the terms.  In later posts I will explore how and when I would apply them to knitting.

Hue–   What color is it?  Is it a red, a blue, a yellow, etc. ?   This is one of the basic properties of a color.  On a color wheel it is the outside circumference or perimeter.

Saturation–  How pure or muddy is the color?  It can also be described as how intense or muted is the color?  Sometimes the word chroma is used, but I do not agree with this definition.  Monochromatic refers to a single hue, not a single saturation level.

Value or Luminance–  If I took away the color, what grey would I have left?  Value is the more common term, but Luminance has fewer other meanings.    Luminance can be created in a variety of ways.  One way is to add white, black or grey.   This addition creates a number of other terms used in describing color.

A Tint–  Adding white to a color.  The closest equivalent in knitting is a marled yarn that has a white strand added.  You may also think of some light value heathered yarns as being tints.  Pastel colors are usually made in painting by adding white.

A Tone–  Adding grey to a color.  This is subtly different than adding the complement.  Adding a complementary color will create a color grey.  This grey will be more vibrant and cleaner than a Tone.

A Shade–  Adding black to a color.  This can be accomplished in knitting through marling, heathers and through dyeing the yarn.   Dyes are subtractive in how they interact.  They stain the fibers and lower the ability of the fibers to reflect light.

Cangiante–  A scheme used in the early Renaissance to create lighting illusions in painting.  See the works of the painter Giotto.   Value range was created using Tints and pure colors.  Unfortunately, each color has it’s own inherent value, so this creates uneven lighting illusions.  Blues and their tints have a much broader range for example than yellows and their tints.

Chiaroscuro–  A Renaissance technique for creating a lighting illusion using tints, shades and pure color.  See the work of the Baroque painter Caravagio.  This creates a range of values that have a somber and flat appearance.  Can be very good for drama, but is not the way that our eyes perceive value in color.

Sfumato–  Another Renaissance technique for creating lighting illusions developed by Leonardo DaVinci.  First a black and white underpainting or grisaille is painted and then thin glazes of color are added on top.  This creates depth and atmosphere in a painting.  It is notoriously difficult to photograph due to the limitations of camera lenses as anyone who has actually seen it can attest.

Chromatic Greys–  Value and saturation relationships created by mixing complementary colors.  First explored in detail by the painter Titian.  This is actually the way in which our eyes perceive the relationships between hue, saturation and value.  When used as the foundation for a painting, the illusions created are more vibrant and rich.  See the works of painters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer & Velazquez.

Achromatic Greys–  Greys created by mixing white and black together.  When used to create value relationships these will be flatter in a appearance than designs that use Chromatic Greys.  The real strength of Achromatic Greys is in their use adjacent to strongly saturated colors.  They will appear to shift to the hue of the complementary color of whatever saturated color they are next to because of a phenomenon known as Successive Contrast.

Successive Contrast–  A physiological phenomenon that occurs because there is a time lapse that occurs when the molecules (Iodopsin & Rhodopsin)  in our retinas have been stimulated and must reset before they can be stimulated again.   During this time lapse the brain misinterprets the data from our eye and thinks that the stimulus isn’t present.  Therefore it sees the opposite of what is actually there.  If you stare at a bright red circle for a period of time and the look at a white sheet of paper, you will see the ghost of a green circle.    This type of contrast helps make vision very relative.

Simultaneous Contrast–  The physiological phenomenon that is caused by our body artificially enhancing and suppressing contrast relationships relative to contrast thresholds.  I went over this at length in a previous post.  Remember all sensory data is subject to this phenomenon, not just Hue information.  This is the primary reason vision is very relative.

Key- The overall range of values within an image.   I will use it to describe the compression of values within a portion of the value range.   I will use Low Key to describe images where the overall image is dark and the range of values is between black and dark grey.  I will use Mid Key to describe images where the range of values falls between dark grey and light grey.  I will use High Key to describe images where the range is from light grey to white.  (Note:  Some artists use Low Key to mean compressed values and High Key to mean a full range of values from black to white.)  The importance of Key is due to the relationship between Simultaneous Contrast and the overall value range of the image.  Remember that the contrast thresholds in Absolute Scale relationships such as value are set as percentages of the total value range present.  Since Key compresses the total range, it allows us to see much more subtle value contrasts than are possible when we use the whole Value range from black to white.

Absolute Scale Contrasts- Contrasts where there are finite limits to the range such as Opacity and Value.

Infinite Scale Contrasts- Contrasts where there are no finite limits to the range such as Size and Time.

Circular Scale Contrast–  The unique contrast relationships of Hue.

This is not a complete list, but it will serve as a good start.

Thanks for reading.

Basic Hue Contrast

As I mentioned in the previous post, Hue contrast exists on a circular scale.  The unusual thing about the circular scale is that there are different thresholds for contrast suppression and contrast amplification.  In each of the other scales, contrast is either suppressed or amplified and there is a threshold where the switch occurs. 

The amplification threshold for Hue occurs when two hues are separated by 120 degrees or more.  Furthermore, it is a sliding scale.  Hues that are 120 degrees apart have some contrast amplification.  Hues that are 180 degrees apart have ‘maximum’ contrast amplification.    These relationships are defined as Simultaneous Contrast and the colors are said to be Compliments.  True complimentary colors are any two hues 180 degrees apart.  Split Compliments are hues on either side of a color’s true compliment.  The greater the Simulaneous Contrast, the more the that the colors will appear to vibrate next to each other.  This phenomenon is fairly easy to see and why it is used to demonstrate the principle of Simultaneous Contrast.  Unfortunately, many artists have mistakenly assumed that because it was the demo model, it is the only form of Simultaneous Contrast.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Simultaneous Contrast exists in all aspects of our visual perception.

Hues that are within 60 degrees of each other exhibit contrast suppression and are called Analogous colors.  The closer the two hues are to each other, the greater the contrast suppression and the harder it will be for your audience to distinguish between them.  Analagous colors have the advantage of helping to unify a field.

Hues that fall between 60 and 120 degrees of separation have simple contrast.  They can be distiguished from one another, but do not stand out or blend together.

Two color contrast pairs warrant special consideration:  Red-Green contrast and Blue-Yellow contrast.  These two hue pairings have the strongest simultaneous contrast of any possible combinations because they are hard wired into the mechanisms of our eyes.   This is a function of the unique ways in which the Cone cells in our eyes process light.  Red- Green contrast stems from the comparison of information between the Medium and Long wavelength cone cells.  Blue-Yellow contrast stems from the Medium + Long  cone cell data being compared to the Short wavelength cone cell information.  These two contrasts will have the strongest hue response in your audience.  But remember, Hue doesn’t exist by itself.  You will also be manipulating Value and Saturation at the same time.  Red -Green contrasts often have very little Value contrast.  Blue-Yellow contrasts usually have very strong Value contrasts.  (This is because some of the same physiology is used to record both B-Y contrast and Light to Dark contrast.)

Two Color Wheels

The other issue governing Hue contrast is whether we are talking about Projected or Reflected light.  Projected light exists when light is shined directly at your eyes.  Prior to the advent of color television, it really didn’t come into consideration very often.  But today’s computer monitors and televisions make it an important part of our every day life.  Depending on the composition of energies within the light, we will perceive it as different colors.  The more light that I add, the brighter it becomes and the closer it gets to white.  For this reason, projected light is often called Additive color and it has it’s own color wheel.  The 3 additive primary colors are Red, Green and Blue or RGB.  The additive secondary colors are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.   The additive secondary colors formed the basis for the traditional printers inks, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black).   For over a century, CMYK printing was thought of as full spectrum color.  This isn’t true, but until the public interacted with color television and computers, most people didn’t realize it.

The more traditional color wheel is for Subtractive color.  This is the color that exists when light is reflected off of a surface and then into our eyes.  Hence it is Reflective light.  Each object that light hits absorbs some of the energy.  For example a red object absorbs everything but the energies that we perceive as red.  Since each material absorbs some of the light, when I blend two colors together, they become darker.  This subtracts light and approaches black.  This is why it is commonly called Subtractive Color.   The Subtractive primary hues are Red, Yellow and Blue.  The Subtractive secondary colors are Purple, Orange and Green.

So What the Heck does this have to do with Knitting?

Knitting technically falls under the Subtractive color wheel.  But unlike paint or dye, we do not mix colors.  So the traditional definitions of what is a secondary color or a primary color are basically irrelevant.  (This is not true if you are dyeing your own yarn or fiber.)  What is important is the structural position of the hues around the color wheel.  The primary colors are each separated by 120 degrees.  The Secondary colors are also separated from each other by 120 degrees.  And each primary has a secondary color that is it’s complement 180 degrees across the color wheel.  I know.  This last bit is just basic color theory.  Elementary school children learn this.  (Or they used to before Art was removed from their education.)  If anything here is new it is the notion that all  of these relationships will exhibit some Simultaneous contrast.    This is one of the things that gives their relationships structure.

Another thing to remember is that just because knitting is technically reflected light, we are not limited to the relationships in the Subtractive color wheel.  Our brains are used to seeing the structural relationships in either color wheel.  Regardles of material, we can leverage that structural familiarity in any design.  Many modern sports team use Teal and Burgundy as their team colors.  This is a version of the Cyan -Magenta complimentary pairing from the Projected light wheel.  Blue and Gold is another complimentary pair from the same wheel and it is one of the two hard wired relationships.  This makes it a very powerful color scheme.   CMYK is a printing strategy based on Projected light relationships.

But ultimately, the reason that went over this material here is so that we can build upon this basic understanding as I describe some of the things that I am leveraging in my color knitting.  Thanks for reading.


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