Creating Contrast

Whether you’re working with an already existing pattern or creating your own, one of the most important elements is the overall composition (the arrangement or organization of the visual elements). Color is not the only thing that will affect the balance, but it is a very important part and can be very impactful. An important part of creating a successful composition is relying on contrast. Contrast is the opposition of different colors, lines, shapes, textures, etc. to provide movement and intensity. You can make color work for you by intuitively incorporating prints and texture while taking into account their effect on the balance and composition.

Contrast determines visual heirarchy—in other words, the order in which we perceive what we’re looking at. Areas with higher contrast are seen and recognized first. This can be very useful when trying to highlight a particular block or area of a pattern. Have you ever had the experience of falling in love with a pattern, but when you selected your fabrics it just didn’t seem to have the same oomph? Chances are you were lacking the same level of contrast as the original fabrics shown.

Contrast can be found in several aspects of color. Contrast of hue, value, and saturation. While there are other ways to create contrast as well, we’ll just go over these basics.

Contrast of hue is associated with the color wheel. The further away the colors are from each other on the wheel, the more contrast there is. The different complementary color schemes have the highest amount of contrast (blue/orange, red/green, yellow/violet).

Contrast of value can create a high amount of contrast. Specifically, one of the highest contrasting pairs, black and white, is a contrast of value. It is said that vast differences of lightness and darkness are pleasing to the eye.

Contrast of saturation relies on combining varying intensities of one color. While this creates a less impactful contrast, it can be very helpful with pushing specific areas to the background (or allowing higher contrast areas to be pushed to the foreground). A good example of this would be in the Winter Flurries Quilt Kit. The different shades of blues and greens subtly push the “snowballs” to the foreground, while still giving the background a nice pattern to keep your eyes moving.

While color does play a very important role in creating contrast, it is also the lack of color that can help balance a composition and push it toward a more sophisticated look. By making use of the negative space (the space around and between objects), you allow for the composition to breathe. Using neutral, solid fabrics (e.g. white, gray, cream) in the background or sashing can help create balance and keep the focus on the areas of contrast you’ve already worked so hard to develop. An example of utilizing negative space would be the Dottie Quilt Kit. The solid white background allows the bright colors to really pop off and seemingly bounce around.

A few more examples of quilts with high contrast:



  1. Linda Christianson - July 17, 2013

    I have just about finished a sampler quilt using three CT 4th of July fabric from three years ago. Did I “ever” learn that just because three fabric should work together, contrast made the blocks that had solid fabric “pop”. I would love to do over every block that did not work, but it is not worth it. It is ready to be quilted. Someone will love it to keep them warm.

  2. Mari - July 19, 2013

    Hey, this is very informative. Takes me back to my college days. Well done Katrina!

  3. Barb Grutter - July 21, 2013

    Thank you for reinstilling this information! It’s so easy for me to “over-think” when it comes to making the colors in fabric work together. I try to help my quilting students see how creating contrast works but I like how it is written here. I plan on sharing this link!