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Day and night, light and darkness—this polarity is of fundamental significance in human life and nature generally.

—Johannes Itten, The Art of Color

Concept and Inspiration

Superficially, the contrast between light and dark may appear to be the most obvious form of contrast. Black is dark, white is light, and a myriad of gray tones range between them. Items knit in black and white or a range of grays are eye-catching, successful multicolor projects. Do not be ashamed for choosing these color combinations for your knitting projects—easy contrast can be excellent contrast and is in no way inferior to more complex contrast. I have used simple light-dark contrast in the Albers Cowl (above) and Mosaic Cowl (below) here:

Rembrandt is a master of using light and dark to create drama and evoke emotional responses to his etchings and paintings. Consider The Philosopher in Meditation, in which light from a window illuminates the lone figure of the philosopher, or The Night Watch, in which the light that bathes the officers guarding the gate contrasts with the darkness that surrounds them.

Practical Methods

From these considerations, let us return to the quotidian task of determining light-dark contrast so we can make good choices when selecting yarn for, say, a pair of colorwork mittens. Determining relative lightness and darkness is easy for black and light gray, but what about purple and blue? Yellow and red? A semisolid purple and a speckled pink? Like all aspects of color theory, determining value is a skill. But there are tools and techniques to help you. Here are the yarns from my stash that are currently sitting on my desk.

I have performed a quick sort of these yarns, arranging them from darkest (on the left) to lightest (on the right). It is not a perfect sort, and I did it using the first of three methods for value determination: squinting. My husband, who worked as a high-end interior painter for years, taught me this method: “Just squint and imagine the colors are gray.” Try this method using two skeins of yarn that have obvious light-dark contrast, such as a rich purple and a pastel blue, and you should be able to see the contrast without seeing the hues.

If you find that method to be ridiculous, you can use a value finder, which is a piece of red or green plastic. When you view fabric or yarn through a value finder, you will see only shades of gray—extremely helpful for quilters working with patterned fabrics for which light-dark contrast is difficult to determine. For about ten bucks, you can have one in your bag, available anytime you purchase fabric or yarn and don’t feel like squinting.

The third tool for assessing value is likely within arm’s reach, if not in your hand, now: your smartphone. Take a photo of your yarns and view it in grayscale. Or just apply the grayscale filter and examine your yarns. I applied the grayscale filter to the photo of my stash, which I sorted quickly using the squinty method.

Not bad. If I grabbed one ball from the far right, one from the middle, and one from the far left of this group, I could knit my colorwork mitten with confidence that the patterns would show up well, regardless of the hues of the yarns.

Our Preferences Foil Our Intentions

Armed with this knowledge and your smartphone, you are ready to apply value to your color choices. However, be aware that our personal color preferences often hinder our ability to create light-dark contrast in our projects. When I teach color theory workshops, the majority of eesh color combinations result from lack of light-dark contrast, even after I have discussed light-dark contrast in depth. Taking a peek at your stash might reveal the reason. Many people gravitate toward jewel tones—reds, purples, deep blues, deep greens—that are flattering to wear and seductive in the skein.

When I design and teach, I place colors into four value categories: light, medium-light, medium-dark, and dark. Jewel tones are nearly always medium-dark, with some edging into the categories of dark and medium-light. Regardless of their contrast of hue, medium-dark colors will never pop when used together. Consider this a justification for enhancing your stash with light and medium-light yarns. You can choose colors that are light because they have a lot of white added to them, such as pale blues and greens, or colors that have inherently light hues, like yellow.

We All Make Mistakes

Usually, I am good at using the squinty method to choose color combinations. I have employed it when creating kits for my Monomania sweater and when choosing scrap yarns to make stashbusting projects like the Fixation Cowl.

But last year, I chose these colors for a shawl prototype. I had been teaching color theory workshops for five years when I made this decision.

Granted, I chose them from my computer monitor, not in person, but when they arrived I immediately cast on and began to work out the shawl construction, ignoring the ennui the project evoked. A quick squint at my work reveals the problem. Eesh. Medium-light and medium-dark only. Sad.

Participants in my workshops often assure me that this color combination is “not so bad,” and I appreciate this kindness. Then I pull out the finished project and ask which version merits a second look.

This version features light, medium-light, and dark, with the dark really kicking up the contrast. No one wants to spend hours knitting a project that turns out “not so bad.”

Confirm Before Cast-On

If you adore your jewel tone combination and do not want to change the way the colors interact, choose a pale gray. Gray is a neutral, meaning that it contains no color. As a result, adding it to a color combination will provide light-dark contrast without adding more contrast of hue. You can also choose a paler or darker version of one of the hues you are using. If you are uncertain, use your tools—squinting, value finder, smartphone—to check before you start knitting. If you can identify multiple value categories—light, medium-light, medium-dark, and dark—congratulations! You have contrast! Unsquint and cast on!

About The Author

Ann Weaver lives in Baltimore, where she works as a freelance editor and writer and spends her free time volunteering and working to bring change to her community. You can follow Ann on Instagram and find her designs on Ravelry, where her username is weaverknits.


  • wonderful, clear explanation. I am an artist and knitter and often wish my fellows in both areas would study color.

  • Who knew? Not me! This is a great, easy to understand lesson. Thank you.

  • Wonderful! I am trying to learn as much I can about colour. It applies to everything, not just fibre arts. I am also trying to figure out colour and weaving. I guess the answer is sample and swatch! Try it and see what happens, but first I’ll take photos.

  • I have been employing the squint technique for years. Its really helpful. I also subscribe to the technique of piling all the yarns together, leaving them out on the table, and just giving them a passing glance as i walk by the table. If it doesn’t distinguish itself, then something is wrong.

    And finally, I will just add that absolutely nothing I have made in the last 10 years has garnered more compliments from total strangers than my Albers scarf, based on the Albers Cowl above. (6 squares instead of 3). Plus: it is incredibly fun to do, and is a great road trip project. Make it! (unless you are extremely shy and do not want to be bothered with all those compliments!)

    • Ditto on the Albers Cowl! Mine has four squares after I made the first as a gift with pattern’s spec’d three. Mine garners raves, as I’m sure BFF Sarah’s does in Durham!

  • I had not heard the grayscaling a photo trick before. Brilliant and easy to do while standing in my LYS with an armload of yarn. I am about to cast on for Stephen West’s new marled KAL and will take a photo of my yarn pile first!

  • Thank you for a terrific series.

  • Squinting is great. Bear in mind blues are lighter than they appear and reds are darker. Computers are not fooled. So the dilemma is, do you judge on eye or go with the computer’s greyscale? – given that it will be looked at by humans.

  • Your “not-so-bad” and final versions say it all. Great illustration!

  • That was an awesome article, thank you. Have used my phone to check yarn colours before, when my son was choosing yarn for his sweater. A value finder sounds like a fun tool though!

  • As you and I have talked about before, I have trouble with using a lot of contrast. Add to that my reluctance to use white (thank you Kaffe Fassett) and black (thank you Kristen Nicholas) I am often left without much contrast in value. Are there other ways to get contrast or do I need to suck it up?

  • The smartphone greyscale tip is one of my favorites — bionic eyes! — but I always think it needs to come with a cautionary note: not all “black-and-white” or “greyscale” filters on your phone are created equal! Some can be very misleading if you’re using them as a value assessment tool.

    What you want is a *neutral* greyscale or black-and-white filter. Some of the more “dramatic” filters are digitally recreating clever tricks from film photography, such as putting colored filters over your camera lens, then shooting with black and white film. These filters purposely change the values of colors, in order to achieve an interesting effect (a famous one: turning a pale blue sky dark charcoal).

    My hints for finding a neutral greyscale filter, since most of us aren’t digital photography experts:

    – Look for a greyscale filter with a more boring name (e.g., “Mono”, not “Noir”)
    – Take a photo of something like a color wheel and try a few different greyscale filters on it. Watch out for ones where one color (blue, for example) suddenly appears to shift in value.
    – Instead of using a filter, take a photo, then manually reduce the saturation to zero (this is possible using just about any smartphone camera’s built-in editing tools)

  • Great information – thank you. I find that my best color combinations include a color I don’t care for. This isn’t really a dark/light issue, but it is an antidote to choosing favorite colors that are only so-so as a combination. I no longer take colors I don’t like out of a mix, and I sometimes choose one on purpose. Of course, now I find I like more colors 😉

  • I seem to remember being told to put my yarn selections close together, and then make a circle with my hand and put it to my eye as if using a telescope to view the yarns. This would help me see how the colors work together.

  • Thank you for wonderful explanation and intro of grayscale feature on my phone

  • That makes this another explanation simpler and more memorable than any I got in art school. Thank you, Ann! I’m putting this information to immediate use.

  • Before I discovered knitting, I did a lot of needlepoint. I was married to an attorney who was an incredible painter. When I mentioned that I wanted to take a course re: color, I was told that I didn’t need to as I had honed an excellent eye for color without any formal training. Interesting comment then and now

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