Creating Painted and Dyed Backgrounds for Crazy Quilting

Carolyn Phillips © 2009

   
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As crazy quilters, we are always looking for interesting and unique backgrounds on which to work our crazy quilt embellishments, but I don’t believe that most of us automatically think about using paints and dyes.

Painted backgrounds can add texture and interest to an ordinary, uninspired crazy quilt patch or block, and a little paint might be the ideal element needed to “correct” and unite dissimilar patches and areas in a block. In the example shown below (photo #1), the treasure chest patch in this mermaid-themed block has a white background that calls a little too much attention to itself. My solution, shown below in photo #2, was to paint the white area using acrylic paints.

The treasure chest, above, was printed onto white cotton fabric before being sewn into the crazy quilt block. Please see photo #2 below for my fix.

To blend the white background of the treasure chest patch into the surrounding patches, acrylic paints in warm, toasty beiges and browns were painted up against the chest, and then several different blues were painted in the corners and along the sides of the patch. Deep blues and purples were used in the lower right area behind the chest for a feeling of depth in the ocean. Finally, bright yellow and gold paints were used for the rays coming from the jewels and coins in the treasure chest! If you feel a little intimidated by using a paint brush, a small piece of sea sponge, sold at most craft stores, or a small square cut from a household sponge, can be substituted for the paint brush. You will want to be sure that only a small amount of water is used in the brush or sponge when painting in an area where you want good coverage, as in the example above.

Another example of using paint to correct or enhance backgrounds is shown in the mermaid block in photo #3, below.

The mermaid image above was ink-jet printed onto Habotai silk (sold by the roll at Dharma Trading Company), and then sewn onto the block. An old paint brush and beige, brown and black acrylic paints were used to dab in rocks and sand to match the Batik “rock” print. The paint was carried up onto the lower edge of the mermaid image to blend it into the surrounding areas. You can also see painted “rocks” along, above, and below the horizontal seam line that runs under the mermaid. Several different colors of blue acrylic paints were used to blend the upper edge and sides of the mermaid print into the blue background color of the water. A small piece of sea sponge can be substituted for the paint brush, if desired. Be sure that only a small amount of water is used in the brush or sponge when painting in an area where you want good coverage, as in the example above.

The background for this dragonfly piece was painted on Dupioni silk, using acrylic paint that has been thinned with water. To make the painting permanent, press with a dry iron on the “silk” setting. (The dragonfly was painted with acrylic paint.)

Beaded dragonfly on dyed Dupioni silk. To make the fabric dye permanent, press with a dry iron on the “silk” setting, before embellishing. (Directions for making the dragonfly are on my blog at http://sunshinedesigns-carolynphi.blogspot.com)

The under-the-sea scene is an example of using fabric dyes to create a soft, pastel background color. To make the fabric dye permanent, press with a dry iron on the “silk” setting, before embellishing.

Sky and clouds are painted with acrylic paints, thinned with water, on Dupioni silk.

The silk fabric was first moistened with water, and then, with a paint brush and thinned blue paint, touch the tip of the brush to the moist fabric surface, allowing the paint to spread out on its own. (Refer to the photo above for color placement.) While the fabric is still moist, pick up more concentrated blue and touch it to the areas you want to be darkest. Repeat the touches of color until you have the desired effect. The “clouds” are the white, unpainted areas of the fabric. Touch the wet brush into a little purple, and softly blend it across the bottom left area of the still-moist fabric. To make the painting permanent, press with a dry iron on the “silk” setting.

Color Relationships

Now that I have, hopefully, enticed you to try your hand at a little painting and dying, you’ll need a bit of instruction to help in accomplishing this without creating that dreaded muddy brown that can sneak in and defeat our best efforts. *I’d like to help you understand why mud happens and, more importantly, how you can avoid it.

I really do understand that the instant we see a color wheel, our eyes tend to glaze over and our brains want to shut down; but, I promise to keep this lesson as brief as I possibly can, while possibly helping you to have an enjoyable, eye-opening learning experience.

Now, please forgive me as I treat you like you’re a little kid.

In our early years of elementary school, we were taught that the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. See the illustration below, in photo #8.


Primary colors.

We were also taught in school that if you mix red with yellow you get orange; if you mix yellow with blue you get green; and when you mix blue with red you get purple.


Primary and secondary colors.

Note: You’ll find it helpful to refer to the color wheel above (photo #9) as we discuss color relationships. You might also find that you can more easily visualize the color relationships when viewing the actual colors in the plastic paint trays in photo #11, or in photo #12.

I believe we have all heard of “complementary colors,” but what are they, and why do we need to know about them? Complementary colors are situated directly across from each other on the color wheel. If these two colors are mixed, you will make a muddy brown. Red + Green = Mud! Yellow + Purple = Mud! Blue + Orange = Mud!

*Why We Get Mud: When all three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are mixed, we get mud. Complementary colors consist of one primary color on one side of the color wheel, and one secondary color on the opposite side of the color wheel. Secondary colors consist of two primary colors, so when you add them together, you will have created mud! (Aren’t you sorry you asked?)

Here’s something else you may not know. If you draw a straight line from the red at the top of the color wheel down to the green at the bottom of the wheel, dissecting the wheel in half, you will separate the COOL-temperature colors on the left side of the color wheel from the WARM-temperature colors on the right side of the color wheel.

For cool-temperature colors, think of cool purple grapes, deep burgundy wine, or cool blue water from a mountain stream.

For warm-temperature colors, think of sunshine, warm, fragrant oranges or lemons just picked from the tree. Or, how about warm lemon meringue pie? (Okay, now I’m hungry!)

Cool-Temperature Colors

If you start with the primary color red, at the top of the color wheel, and move left (counter-clockwise), toward the primary color blue, as you gradually add small amounts of blue to the red, you will be creating a red-purple. As you add more blue to the red, you will get a color that’s starting to look more like purple. When you get to the halfway point between red and blue, you will have a mix that is half red and half blue, giving you purple, which is a “secondary” color. As you continue adding small amounts of the blue to the purple, your color will gradually become more of a blue-purple. As you add more and more blue to the mix, you will eventually lose all of the purple color and will then have primary blue.

As you begin adding primary yellow to the primary blue, you will be creating blue-green. As you add more and more yellow to the blue, you will get to the halfway point where you have half primary blue and half primary yellow, which will give you “secondary” green. Let’s stop at the green which, not coincidentally, is on the line that separates the cool colors on the left from the warm colors on the right side of the color wheel.

Warm-Temperature Colors

As you, once again, go back up to the primary color red at the top of the color wheel and, this time, move to the right (clockwise) toward primary yellow, you will first go through red-orange, and then at the halfway point between red and yellow, you will have half red and half yellow, which is secondary orange. As we continue on adding more yellow to the orange, we’ll get yellow-orange, and with more yellow added, we’ll get primary yellow.

Add blue to the yellow and you get blue-green, and then at the halfway point between blue and yellow, you will get secondary green. Again, we’ll stop at green.

The reason it is so great to know all of this is that if you really like the cool colors on the left (counter-clockwise) side of the color wheel, you can use this series of colors right next to each other and you will never get muddy colors.

If you decide that you prefer the warm colors on the right (clockwise) side of the color wheel, you can use these colors next to each other and, again, will never get mud.

This is really important information to know if you want to paint or dye your CQ background fabric and feel confident that you won’t get mud. Or, if you want to paint or dye variegated silk ribbon, lace or thread, you won’t get mud. You don’t, of course, have to use all of the colors on the warm side of the color wheel, or all of the colors on the cool side of the color wheel, you can choose to use two, or more, of any adjoining (analogous) colors on the wheel that appeal to you. And, this is also true if you want to use an adjoining (analogous) group of colors that begin on the cool side of the color wheel, and continue on into the warm side. For example, if you choose the adjacent grouping of blue-green, green, yellow-green and yellow, you can easily visualize this combination of colors by taking a quick look at your color wheel. Or, as I mentioned earlier, I find that I can visualize these color combinations best when I view the actual colors in either of the plastic color trays in photo #11, or in photo #12.

You can find an amazing number of adjacent (analogous) color groups if you simply make a full circle around the color wheel. As long as you are using colors, or groups of colors, that are adjacent to each other, you won’t make mud.

Okay, now let’s leave all of that cerebral stuff behind and actually start playing with our paints and dyes.

Below, in photo #10, are the supplies you will want to gather before you begin. You can substitute bottled acrylics for the tube acrylics shown, and you can use your own brand/type of fabric dyes. However, I highly recommend that you get one of the plastic color trays, shown below in photo #11, so you can better visualize the relationships of the colors as they are laid out on a color wheel.

You might notice that the tubes of paint that I have laid out, in photo #10, above, include both the primary and some already-mixed secondary colors. Is that cheating? Yep! And you can do the same! You can go through your acrylic paints and find a red that you like (preferably not with too much orange in the red), and use that for your red. Do the same for orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Not only is this easier, but you can be assured that you’ll have colors that you really like! The most important thing is that if you don’t have a particular already-mixed color, you know how to mix the color yourself. My paints are Jo Sonja’s Acrylic Gouache (rhymes with squash). For my red, I used Napthol Red, my orange is a mix of Napthol Red and Yellow Deep, my green is Sap Green, my blue is Sapphire, and my purple is Dioxazine Purple.

Do the same with your dyes. My fabric dyes are Ozecraft, (www.VictorianDyesandLaces.com).  My “red” is Fuschia, which is a bit of a pinkish red. My orange is Southern Peach (maybe with a tiny bit of red added), my yellow is Saffron, my green is Olive, my blue is Kerman Blue, and my purple is Violet. I love these dyes, as you don’t have to use very much of it (mixed with water) to get beautiful colors. Use scrap pieces of fabric to test your water to dye ratio.

The colors in the tray on the left are acrylic paints that have been thinned with water. The colors in the tray on the right are fabric dyes thinned with small amounts of water. The piece of blue silk (photo #11) above, shows that the results of the acrylic paints on the left and the fabric dyes on the right are nearly the same.

Although I prefer using fabric dyes with silk ribbon (and with lace and embroidery thread), the acrylic paint thinned with water will give a very similar look.

Before painting or dying fabric, silk ribbon, lace, or thread, be sure to moisten it with water. I usually dip it into a bowl of water, or hold it under running water, and then lay it between layers of paper toweling. Do not wad-up or squeeze silk to remove excess water, as you will get permanent creases and wrinkling that are nearly impossible to iron out. Do press down on the paper toweling to remove excess water from the fabric before painting or dying it. If the fabric begins drying too much, you can spritz it with water from a spray bottle.

The silk fabric on the left shows the cool colors, from red at the top on down to green at the bottom. The silk fabric on the right corresponds to the warm colors on the right side of the color wheel. I used a flat bristled brush to apply the dyes.

The silk ribbon, above, was folded in half lengthwise, and then the fold was placed into the red paint well at the top and then scrunched up a bit. The remaining ribbon was then brought down on either side of the tray, scrunching a bit of the ribbon into each well. Finally, the loose ends of the ribbon were scrunched into the green well at the bottom. The ribbon was left in the dye for only a few minutes, carefully moving it back and forth only fractions of an inch in each of the wells, being sure that each of the colors blended nicely into the next color.

The silk squares and the silk ribbon show the progression of color from the red on down to the green on both the warm colors on the left, and the cool colors on the right.

The warm colors on the left and the cool colors on the right, after they were dried and pressed. See the two small brownish spots on the upper part of the silk square on the left? That’s where I put my green-tipped fingers on the red area of the square, proving that if you mix red and green you get that ugly brown muddy color. I did that on purpose just so you could see it…grin.

There will be times when you will want to use complementary colors next to each other, such as when you want to paint or dye green stems or leaves up against red or pink flowers; or, when you want to use purple up against yellow, or blue up against orange. The following sets of swatches will show you a way to do this.

I have no idea if there is some “rule” for doing this, but my method is to find a color that will create a “bridge” (sort of a neutral color) between the two opposing colors so they won’t have the undesirable brown mud where the colors touch against each other.

Complementary colors red and green. On the swatch at the right, you can see the brown mud where the two colors come together. The swatch on the left shows a little soft yellow that creates a bridge between the two colors. The way I choose the color for the bridge, is to find a color that will blend in with both of the colors. We know by looking at the color wheel that yellow can be blended into red without any problems, and we know that yellow can blend into green.

Complementary colors blue and yellow. The swatch on the right shows the brown that is created when the two colors come together. The swatch on the left shows a pale pinkish color (which is in the red family) that creates a bridge, or buffer, that will blend with both the blue and the yellow.

Complementary colors blue and orange. The swatch on the right shows the brown mud between the two colors. The swatch on the left has a pale “red” bridge/buffer that will blend with both the blue and the orange.

While painting and dying the samples for this article, I was happily surprised at how similar the results were when comparing the paints and the dyes. When working with paint on backgrounds, whether the paint was thinned with water to a watercolor consistency or was used pretty much as it comes out of the tube or bottle, the results were more than satisfactory.

Although the results when working on silk ribbon, lace, and thread, with acrylic paints that have been thinned to watercolor consistency, were also quite good, I found that the most impressive difference between the paints and the dyes was the lovely sheen that I got from using the dyes on silk ribbon and on embroidery threads. The sheen of the silk ribbon improves significantly after being pressed with an iron set on a “silk” setting.

If you have never tried to use paints and dyes, or if you have tried and weren’t happy with the results, I hope the information in this lesson will encourage you to try again.

You can contact me at CarolynLPhillips@msn.com, and on my blog at http://sunshinedesigns-carolynphi.blogspot.com

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